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Trademarks, by their very nature, try to control this sharing as much as possible. That's evident in the Mozilla trademark document:

Although many uses of the Mozilla Marks are governed by more specific rules, which appear below, the following basic guidelines apply to almost any use of the Mozilla Marks in printed materials, including marketing, articles and other publicity-related materials, and websites:

  • Proper Form – Mozilla's trademarks should be used in their exact form -- neither abbreviated nor combined with any other word or words (e.g., "Thunderbird" rather than "T-Bird" or "Thunderbinary");
  • Accompanying Symbol – The first or most prominent mention of a Mozilla trademark should be accompanied by a symbol indicating whether the mark is a registered trademark ("®") or an unregistered trademark ("™"). See our Trademark List for the correct symbol to use;
  • Notice – The following notice should appear somewhere nearby (at least on the same page or on the credits page) the first use of a Mozilla trademark: "[TRADEMARK] is a ["registered", if applicable] trademark of the Mozilla Foundation";
  • Distinguishable – In at least the first reference, the trademark should be set apart from surrounding text, either by capitalizing it or by italicizing, bolding or underlining it. In addition, your website may not copy the look and feel of the Mozilla website, again, we do not want the visitor to your website to be confused about which company he/she is dealing with.
  • Comply with Visual Guidelines – any use of the Mozilla Marks must comply with our Trademark and Logo Usage Policy and our Visual Identity Guidelines

That's a pretty heavy set of guidelines, and it's perhaps no surprise that they have proved problematic for some in the free software world. The most famous example is Mozilla's high-profile argument with Debian over this matter.

There's a fascinating thread in the Debian Bug report logs where Mozilla's Mike Connor went through the issues with various people on the Debian project. Although hard work, it offers a good primer on all the issues that free software projects face when trying to reconcile trademarks with freedom. In the end, it was the non-free nature of Mozilla's logs that finally scuppered any chance of including Mozilla projects in Debian distros, along with some security issues. Here's how Wikipedia explains things:

The immediate problem caused by the new policy was Debian's inability to use the official Firefox logo due to its proprietary license failing to comply with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Additionally, as Debian releases are frozen on a long-term basis, software in the frozen stable releases needs to be patched for any newly discovered security issue. Under the revised guidelines, in order to use the Firefox name, approval from the Mozilla Corporation would have been required for all security patches, but the Debian project felt it could not put its security in the hands of an external corporation in that manner.

The solution was to offer rebranded versions of Firefox (Iceweasel), Thunderbird (Icedove), Sunbird (Iceowl) and SeaMonkey (Iceape).

Ironically, Debian itself has been notoriously protective of its own trademarks. That, however, conflicts badly with its desire to share as widely as possible. It has recently come out with a more liberal trademark policy that seeks to strike a fairer balance:

The objective of this trademark policy is:

  1. to encourage widespread use and adoption of the Debian trademarks,
  2. to clarify proper usage of Debian trademarks by third parties,
  3. to prevent misuse of Debian trademarks that can confuse or mislead users with respect to Debian or its affiliates.

Significantly, and rightly, that places the wider use first, and then seeks to limit abuse of that freedom. That seems a good approach for community projects for whom trademark issues are more of a tiresome detail that needs addressing than a pressing issue, as may be the case for Mozilla, with its high-profile software.

It's also important to remember the limitations of trademarks for free software projects. After all, if people want to distribute malware-infected versions of open source code, they are hardly likely to be worried about finer points of trademark law. Such problems should probably be dealt with by community policing – warning users about such corrupted versions – rather than costly legal action. Nonetheless, given that trademarks touch on what is a central concern of free software – reputation and attribution – it's something that all projects need to consider and formalise, although they may wish to follow the looser Debian approach, rather than the somewhat more stringent Mozilla one.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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