Mozilla holds 'fire' in naming fight

The open-source browser development group upgrades its software and settles a long-running trademark dispute, changing the "Firebird" browser name to "Firefox."

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
Ten months after landing in a fierce trademark dispute with a fellow open-source organization, the Mozilla Foundation has changed the name of its standalone browser from Firebird to Firefox.

The new browser--meant to be a streamlined version of the present Mozilla browser, which has been criticized because of its size--has gone through three names before even reaching Version 1.0.

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The original name "Phoenix" encountered trademark difficulties, so Mozilla renamed it "Firebird," sometimes considered a synonym for the self-immolating, immortal bird.

Then Mozilla got an earful from the Firebird relational database open-source development project. That group was concerned that confusion would result from the name, even though one applied to a database and the other a browser.

Mozilla at first stonewalled but later yielded under pressure from the older Firebird's development community.

But even the concession Mozilla made at that point--to refer to the browser strictly as "Mozilla Firebird"--didn't resolve the issue. A subsequent decision to adopt the name "Firefox" also ran into trouble when Mozilla found that a U.K. company held the rights to that trademark. Some months passed before Mozilla could reach an agreement to use the mark in the United Kingdom. A Mozilla representative declined to disclose the company or the terms of that agreement.

With Firefox, Mozilla hopes to put its trademark difficulties behind it.

"We've learned a lot about choosing names in the past year (more than we would have liked to)," the foundation wrote in an online posting about the name change. "We have been very careful in researching the name to ensure that we will not have any problems down the road. We have begun the process of registering our new trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office."

With the U.K. situation resolved, Mozilla's latest name choice looks unlikely to invite trademark challenges. Firefox.com is occupied by a work of fiction, in progress, called "The Quailish Saga." Other endeavors using the name include a fireworks manufacturer and a vehicular fire-prevention technology provider.

A firefox is another name for the red panda, a red-furred, endangered mammal related to the giant panda and found in the Himalayas, China and Myanmar.

The existing Firebird open-source project lauded Mozilla on the name change.

"It's all come out very happily," said Ann Harrison, chief technology officer at Firebird organizer IBPhoenix (no relationship to Phoenix Technologies, which presented the initial trademark challenge to Mozilla). "They agreed last fall that they were going to change the name, and it took a little longer than anyone hoped. But they postponed the release (until the U.K. trademark agreement was reached), which was just spectacular of them, and we are thrilled."

In addition to announcing the name change, Mozilla released version 0.8 of the software, calling it a milestone toward the foundation's first end user-oriented release. Before being spun off by America Online parent Time Warner as the Mozilla Foundation, Mozilla considered itself a technology group that was used by AOL's Netcape Communications unit to create user-friendly products.

New to the release are features including a download manager, bookmark improvements, and enhancements to Mozilla "extensions," small applets that do things such as remove ad banners, check spelling and search popular sites.

Mozilla said few people are buying its newly added telephone support option, but the company contended that the service is worth maintaining to bolster corporate confidence in the browser. Mozilla also plans to launch a new e-mail-based support service.

Firefox 1.0 should be finished by the end of the first half of the year, along with its companion e-mail client, called Thunderbird.