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Mozilla's Firebird gets wings clipped

AOL Time Warner's open-source group indicates it will phase out use of the "Firebird" name, following trademark-infringement complaints by a database group.

After a heated war of words with a fellow open-source development group, appears to be backing down on its use of the name "Firebird" for future releases of its browser.

The dispute began last month when, the browser-development group funded by AOL Time Warner, announced it would change the name of the Phoenix version of its browser to "Firebird," and the "Minotaur" mail client to "Thunderbird."

But the group now appears to have changed course, returning its marketing focus to the Mozilla name.

"Use the names 'Mozilla Browser' and 'Mozilla Mail' to describe the Firebird and Thunderbird projects after the 1.4 release," reads a Mozilla branding policy published April 25, referring to the release slated for May 14. "This branding should be found throughout the projects if possible instead of referring to the Firebird and Thunderbird names directly. Project names are transitory."

Project names have been especially transitory for Mozilla in recent months. The open-source group decided to adopt a smaller, faster version of its code, which had operated under the name Phoenix. But that name brought the group into trademark conflict with Phoenix Technologies, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that markets a browser of its own.

To avoid the Phoenix conflict, Mozilla announced it would call its new browser "Firebird"--a mythical creature sometimes considered synonymous with the phoenix, an immortal bird that regenerates itself through self-immolation.

But the new name raised the hackles of an open-source project that produces a relational database. The sponsor of the Firebird database development group, confusingly enough, goes by the name of IBPhoenix. Formed in 1984 by InterBase Software and acquired by Borland Software in 1991, that group launched an open-source project in 2000.

Pleading poverty, IBPhoenix said at the time that it wouldn't be able to defend its trademark in court, especially against a group funded by AOL Time Warner. Instead, the group took its case to the court of public opinion, urging developers to e-mail Mozilla staffers to protest their choice of the Firebird name.

Mozilla's initial response was unyielding. But the new branding policy shows a change of heart and appears ultimately to consign Mozilla's use of "Firebird" to an internal project name, rather than to a publicly marketed product.

"We're pleased with the direction that they're moving, and I think it shows a sensitivity to their effect on other open-source projects," said Ann Harrison, chief technology officer at IBPhoenix, who spearheaded the initial e-mail campaign against Mozilla. "And it's a really good thing. I think they're being wonderful people."

Mozilla representatives could not be reached for comment.

Harrison attributed the recent détente with Mozilla to the diplomatic intercession of Jonathan Walther, a contributor to the Debian version of the GNU/Linux operating system.

Walther became involved after suggesting in an e-mail to Linux Weekly News that Mozilla rename its browser "Firebird" in another language. After reading Walther's note, Harrison contacted him. At her behest, he mediated the conflict, and at his, she publicly apologized for inciting the e-mail barrage.

Walther appears to have succeeded in smoothing feathers among the competing claimants to the Firebird name.

"I think I may have helped smooth some feelings," Walther said in an interview with CNET "Being able to express their point of view to an outsider seemed to break the siege mentality on both sides. When (Harrison's) apology came I think it was a key step forward and showed the Mozilla team that the Firebird people weren't interested in a conflict and weren't going to be going around bad-mouthing them."

After Walther broke the logjam, references to "Firebird" on rapidly changed to "Mozilla Firebird," and the new policy came out demoting the name from a brand to a project moniker.

Now IBPhoenix is bolstering efforts to protect its database's name. Those steps include researching other corporate uses of the term internationally in preparation to potentially register the mark, and posting a legal justification for the group's ownership of the trademark and a rationale for pursuing infringers.

"We decided we really liked that brand and it was time we did something more active about protecting the name," Harrison said.