The stoush over Linux distributions using the Firefox trademark

The making of the Firefox logo: (

The war of words over usage of the Firefox trademark — name and logo graphic — has been a contentious issue with some commentators going so far as to say that Firefox is not really ‘free’. But Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker says that there’s a much more rational explanation and that the issue has been somewhat misconstrued.

Dan Warne (APC): I was actually just in China and I met the guys from Red Flag Linux where they are working with Intel on a new Linux operating system called MIDINUX for mobile Internet devices.

But they were also telling me that Red Flag Linux is actually the most used distribution of Linux – more popular than Ubuntu for example – because of China’s huge population. Yet I discovered it’s nearly impossible to download from anywhere due to the incredibly slow and unreliable Red Flag download servers – plus it’s only available in Chinese and Spanish at the moment which I guess limits its appeal to the rest of the world somewhat.

But anyway the guys from Red Flag gave me a set of install CDs and we’re publishing them this month on APC’s cover disc. We installed it to try it out and Firefox is on there and it’s an icon that’s remarkably similar in style to the Internet Explorer icon. [laughs].

Mitchell Baker: Well that’s interesting.

Dan Warne (APC): And the open source media player has the Windows Media Player icon too!

Red Flag Desktop 5: first we’d heard of Windows Media Player on Linux too! (Screenshot –

Mitchell Baker: Really well we should look at that that’s really … interesting.

Dan Warne (APC): It’s bizarre because what they’ve done is the entire operating system looks exactly like Windows XP – it’s almost as if they’ve taken all the Microsoft icons and stuff applied to open source software.

Mitchell Baker: To the open source software that’s not remotely related to Windows XP though.

Dan Warne (APC): Exactly! But evidently the felt people were most comfortable with Windows XP so they’d just make it look like that. It was really quite bizarre.

Mitchell Baker: Yeah that is.

Dan Warne (APC): But on this general subject there has been quite some controversy around the use of the Firefox trademark in various Linux distributions. What’s all that about?

Mitchell Baker: Some of the Linux distributions ship Firefox code but not Firefox product — not the Firefox brand and so on. Some of the Linux distributions are very sensitive to trademark law and so they brand the browser as something else which allows their groups to work within in the framework they’re comfortable with.

Dan Warne (APC): Do you as CEO of Mozilla feel that’s necessary? Would Mozilla ever take legal action against a Linux OS using the Firefox trademark?

Mitchell Baker: Well it’s not that it has Firefox in it that would be a problem for us. It’s if an OSS group had made significant changes to it and then shipped it as Firefox. That would be a problem and this is a philosophical kind of difference with the Linux distributors sometimes. It is a pretty complex issue but even something as precise as – when somebody ships us Firefox we want to know exactly what version is in it and that every security patch that we think is in Firefox is in that version.

So that’s the issue for us. If they are just shipping unchanged Firefox we would let the world do that but the Linux distributions of course ship the product so that’s where we run into the setting where we say you are welcome to ship whatever you want but that’s not what we shipped then call someone else.

Dan Warne (APC): Which is more than fair.

Mitchell Baker: Well yeah but it has been pretty contentious.

Dan Warne (APC): I must admit I’d never heard a clear explanation on the issue. I have to confess I’d assumed it was just some sort of turf war that’s typical in the technology industry – small open source product grows into big success and starts acting more commercially.

Mitchell Baker: Oh no not at all. We absolutely want them shipping our trademark for our product and we even have a process which says these are some changes you can make and still call it Firefox because there are some installation changes to get it installed on different Linux distributions for example so of course that makes sense.

So we’re even OK with shipping “Firefox” when it’s not 100 per cent exactly the same but when we’ve agreed and know what those changes are.

But when you get into difference in functionality you strike trouble down the track with upgrade cycles and those sorts of things. Long ago I think we found some distros were shipping different builds of Firefox – something really fundamental that was different and so then we couldn’t assure upgrades would work well. So that’s what that was about.

Read more of the interview with Mitchell Baker: