MariaDB & Trademarks, and advice for your project

I want to emphasize this for those who have not spent time near trademarks: trademarks are trouble and another one of those things where no matter what, the lawyers always win. If you are starting a company or an open source project, you are going to have to spend a whole bunch of time with lawyers on trademarks or you are going to get properly, properly screwed.

MySQL AB always held the trademark for MySQL. There’s this strange thing with trademarks and free software, where while you can easily say “use and modify this code however you want” and retain copyright on it (for, say, selling your own version of it), this does not translate too well to trademarks as there’s a whole “if you don’t defend it, you lose it” thing.

The law, is, in effect, telling you that at some point you have to be an arsehole to not lose your trademark. (You can be various degrees of arsehole about it when you have to, and whenever you do, you should assume that people are acting in good faith and just have not spent the last 40,000 years of their life talking to trademark lawyers like you have).Basically, you get to spend time telling people that they have to rename their product from “MySQL Headbut” to “Headbut for MySQL” and that this is, in fact, a really important difference.

You also, at some point, get to spend a lot of time talking about when the modifications made by a Linux distribution to package your software constitute sufficient changes that it shouldn’t be using your trademark (basically so that you’re never stuck if some arse comes along, forks it, makes it awful and keeps using your name, to the detriment of your project and business).

If you’re wondering why Firefox isn’t called Firefox in Debian, you can read the Mozilla trademark policy and probably some giant thread on debian-legal I won’t point to.

Of course, there’s ‘ MySQL trademark policy and when I was at Percona, I spent some non-trivial amount of time attempting to ensure we had a trademark policy that would work from a legal angle, a corporate angle, and a get-our-software-into-linux-distros-happily angle.

So, back in 2010, Monty started talking about a draft MariaDB trademark policy (see also, Ubuntu trademark policy, WordPress trademark policy). If you are aiming to create a development community around an open source project, this is something you need to get right. There is a big difference between contributing to a corporate open source product and an open source project – both for individuals and corporations. If you are going to spend some of your spare time contributing to something, the motivation goes down when somebody else is going to directly profit off it (corporate project) versus a community of contributors and companies who will all profit off it (open source project). The most successful hybrid of these two is likely Ubuntu, and I am struggling to think of another (maybe Fedora?).

Linux is an open source project, RedHat Enterprise Linux is an open source product and in case it wasn’t obvious when OpenSolaris was no longer Open, OpenSolaris was an open source product (and some open source projects have sprung up around the code base, which is great to see!). When a corporation controls the destiny of the name and the entire source code and project infrastructure – it’s a product of that corporation, it’s not a community around a project.

From the start, it seemed that one of the purposes of MariaDB was to create a developer community around a database server that was compatible with MySQL, and eventually, to replace it. MySQL AB was not very good at having an external developer community, it was very much an open source product and not a an open source project (one of the downsides to hiring just about anyone who ever submitted a patch). Things struggled further at Sun and (I think) have actually gotten better for MySQL at Oracle – not perfect, I could pick holes in it all day if I wanted, but certainly better.

When we were doing Drizzle, we were really careful about making sure there was a development community. Ultimately, with Drizzle we made a different fatal error, and one that we knew had happened to another open source project and nearly killed it: all the key developers went to work for a single company. Looking back, this is easily my biggest professional regret and one day I’ll talk about it more.

Brian Aker observed (way back in 2010) that MariaDB was, essentially, just Monty Program. In 2013, I did my own analysis on the source tree of MariaDB 5.5.31 and MariaDB 10.0.3-ish to see if indeed there was a development community (tl;dr; there wasn’t, and I had the numbers to prove it).If you look back at the idea of the Open Database Alliance and the MariaDB Foundation, actually, I’m just going to quote Henrik here from his blog post about leaving MariaDB/Monty Program:

When I joined the company over a year ago I was immediately involved in drafting a project plan for the Open Database Alliance and its relation to MariaDB. We wanted to imitate the model of the Linux Foundation and Linux project, where the MariaDB project would be hosted by a non-profit organization where multiple vendors would collaborate and contribute. We wanted MariaDB to be a true community project, like most successful open source projects are – such as all other parts of the LAMP stack.


The reality today, confirmed to me during last week, is that:

Those in charge at Monty Program have decided to keep ownership of the MariaDB trademark, logo and domain, since this will make the company more valuable to investors and eventually to potential buyers.

Now, with Monty Program being sold to/merged into (I’m really not sure) SkySQL, it was SkySQL who had those things. So instead of having Monty Program being (at least in theory) one of the companies working on MariaDB and following the Hacker Business Model, you now have a single corporation with all the developers, all of the trademarks, that is, essentially a startup with VC looking to be valuable to potential buyers (whatever their motives).

Again, I’m going to just quote Henrik on the us-vs-them on community here:

Some may already have observed that the 5.2 release was not announced at all on, rather on the Monty Program blog. It is even intact with the “us vs them” attitude also MySQL AB had of its community, where the company is one entity and “outside community contributors” is another. This is repeated in other communication, such as the recent Recently in MariaDB newsletter.

This was, again, back in 2010.

More recently, Jeremy Cole, someone who has pumped a fair bit of personal and professional effort into MySQL and MariaDB over the past (many) years, asked what seemed to be a really simple question on the maria-discuss mailing list. Basically, “What’s going on with the MariaDB trademark? Isn’t this something that should be under the MariaDB foundation?”

The subsequent email thread was as confusing as ever and should be held up as a perfect example about what not to do. Some of us had by now, for years, smelt something fishy going on around the talk of a community project versus the reality. At the time (October 2013), Rasmus Johansson (VP of Engineering at SkySQL and Board Member of MariaDB foundation) said this:

The MariaDB Foundation and SkySQL are currently working on the trademark issue to come up with a solution on what rights to the trademark each entity should have. Expect to hear more about this in a fairly near future.


MariaDB has from its beginning been a very community friendly project and much of the success of MariaDB relies in that fact. SkySQL of course respects that.

(and at the same time, there were pages that were “Copyright MariaDB” which, as it was pointed out, was not an actual entity… so somebody just wasn’t paying attention). Also, just to make things even less clear about where SkySQL the corporation, Monty Program the corporation and the MariaDB Foundation all fit together, Mark Callaghan noticed this text up on

The MariaDB Foundation also holds the trademark of the MariaDB server and owns This ensures that the official MariaDB development tree<> will always be open for the MariaDB developer community.

So…. there’s no actual clarity here. I can imagine attempting to get involved with MariaDB inside a corporation and spending literally weeks talking to a legal department – which thrills significantly less than standing in lines at security in an airport does.

So, if you started off as yay! MariaDB is going to be a developer community around an open source project that’s all about participation, you may have even gotten code into MariaDB at various times… and then started to notice a bit of a shift… there may have been some intent to make that happen, to correct what some saw as some of the failings of MySQL, but the reality has shown something different.

Most recently, SkySQL has renamed themselves to MariaDB. Good luck to anyone who isn’t directly involved with the legal processes around all this differentiating between MariaDB the project, MariaDB Foundation and MariaDB the company and who owns what. Urgh. This is, in no way, like the Linux Foundation and Linux.

Personally, I prefer to spend my personal time contributing to open source projects rather than products. I have spent the vast majority of my professional life closer to the corporate side of open source, some of which you could better describe as closer to the open source product end of the spectrum. I think it is completely and totally valid to produce an open source product. Making successful companies, products and a butt-ton of money from open source software is an absolutely awesome thing to do and I, personally, have benefited greatly from it.

MariaDB is a corporate open source product. It is no different to Oracle MySQL in that way. Oracle has been up front and honest about it the entire time MySQL has been part of Oracle, everybody knew where they stood (even if you sometimes didn’t like it). The whole MariaDB/Monty Program/SkySQL/MariaDB Foundation/Open Database Alliance/MariaDB Corporation thing has left me with a really bitter taste in my mouth – where the opportunity to create a foundation around a true community project with successful business based on it has been completely squandered and mismanaged.

I’d much rather deal with those who are honest and true about their intentions than those who aren’t.

My guess is that this factored heavily into Henrik’s decision to leave in 2010 and (more recently) Simon Phipps’s decision to leave in August of this year. These are two people who I both highly respect, never have enough time to hang out with and I would completely trust to do the right thing and be honest when running anything in relation to free and open source software.

Maybe WebScaleSQL will succeed here – it’s a community with a purpose and several corporate contributors. A branch rather than a fork may be the best way to do this (Percona is rather successful with their branch too).

44 thoughts on “MariaDB & Trademarks, and advice for your project

  1. I quit because it was obvious that the task I signed up for at the MariaDB Foundation — devising governance for an independent, self-sufficient MariaDB community of which SkySQL would be one member — was not going to be possible. I proposed trademark neutrality to SkySQL, but they preferred to leverage the trademark and I took that as the indicator that genuine independence for the Foundation was not possible. I’m sad it didn’t work out.

  2. Hi!

    A lot of good suggestions for how to do things!

    However, I’d like to respond to some of your conclusions, as I don’t think they tell the whole story.

    You claim that if “you are going to spend some of your spare time contributing to something, the motivation goes down when somebody else is going to directly profit off it “.

    This is not necessarily true. People often contribute to projects where someone else directly profits off of their contribution. You can see this in Linux, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, and many other projects.

    A primary motivation for many people who contribute to open source projects is that they want to solve a problem for their company or for their own needs. As long as they have free and open access to the result, they don’t care who owns the trademark, drives the project, or profits off of it.

    “When a corporation controls the destiny of the name and the entire source code and project infrastructure – it’s a product of that corporation, it’s not a community around a project.”

    This is true, when the corporation has full control of the source and doesn’t allow anyone else write access to the source tree. However it’s not true for projects where a corporation drives the project, but anyone can still be part of developing it, like MariaDB.

    “It seemed that one of the purposes of MariaDB was to create a developer community around a database server”

    This is completely true, and we have partly succeeded in this. Today there are several companies that are working on the MariaDB code base and have already committed patches or plan to shortly commit patches to MariaDB. We are not where I want us to be, but we are getting there.

    For example, most of the features in MariaDB 5.3 came from the community and several that are in 5.5 and later also came from the community.

    It’s true, as you point out, that we don’t have many active outside developers pushing directly to the source tree, but that doesn’t mean that there were not people outside of Monty Program Ab that were helping with development, either by contributing code or documentation, providing bug reports and testing code, suggesting features, or in some cases paying us to develop new open source code. This is very similar to many other open source projects.

    In Henrik Ingo’s comment:
    “Those in charge at Monty Program have decided to keep ownership of the MariaDB trademark, logo and domain, since this will make the company more valuable to investors and eventually to potential buyers.”

    The comment comes from the fact that Henrik Ingo tried to convince the owners of Monty Program Ab (i.e., the employees) that they should give the MariaDB trademark, probably Monty Program’s most valuable asset, to a foundation he would manage. When they didn’t agree, then he decided to quit.

    However, this has nothing to do with MariaDB as a community developed project. The important point is this: the code has always been open with write access and will continue to be open for anyone to develop (as long as one follows the rules of the project). This has been true and will always be true with MariaDB.

    As far as I can remember, when 5.2 was announced, we didn’t have a web site (we were still back then discussing who should manage it, Monty program Ab, the ODBA, or someone else). In any case we did announce 5.2 in all the places we could think of. If we forgot it was only because we didn’t have anyone dedicated to managing it.

    Yes, Jeremy Cole did in 2010 ask a question about the MariaDB trademark. Apart from a couple of emails, there was no big confusion or many different people asking questions about it, as anyone can see if they follow the link you posted.

    As Mark Callaghan pointed out, we have learned from the mistakes we did with MySQL; the corporation that owns the trademark of the project should not have full control of the project itself (i.e. the source repository).

    This is why the MariaDB foundation owns three parts of the MariaDB trademark, enough to protect the server project and the source code:

    – mariadb.orgâ„¢ ; To have control of the web site
    – MariaDB Foundationâ„¢ ; It needs to own its own name
    – MariaDB serverâ„¢ ; Which means that it’s the MariaDB Foundation that decides where the official MariaDB source tree is.

    In my opinion, it’s not critical that an open source project owns its own trademark. For example the Linux foundation doesn’t own the Linux trademark! What is critical is who manages the source tree!

    On what do you base the statement “MariaDB is a corporate open source product.”?

    As long as the source tree is open for anyone to develop upon and anyone can participate in the development of the code with equal rights and responsibilities, it is a legitimate open source project.

    This is not, for example, the case with MySQL where no one except Oracle’s own employees can access the latest code or the development road map.

    I am sorry that you have a bad taste about the whole “MariaDB/Monty Program/SkySQL/MariaDB Foundation/Open Database Alliance/MariaDB Corporation”. However, as you have shown 0% interest in being part of the MariaDB project and have asked us no questions about what we are doing, I have a hard time understanding why you are wasting so much energy writing on something you never cared about before.

    If you want know more about MariaDB or the MariaDB foundation, feel free to call me any time so that I can explain our views of things.

  3. to Marc
    Yes, Stewart have before and is now contributing to the MariaDB project by producing code that we can use in the project and he has also pointed us to some useful patches we should use. For this we are very grateful.

    What I meant was that he has never worked actively on the MariaDB code or been an active contributor to the project.

  4. As I’m no longer active with any of the MySQL forks, I have not participated in this debate. However, I must correct the following statement made by Monty, which is false:

    “The comment comes from the fact that Henrik Ingo tried to convince the owners of Monty Program Ab (i.e., the employees) that they should give the MariaDB trademark, probably Monty Program’s most valuable asset, to a foundation he would manage. When they didn’t agree, then he decided to quit.”

    For context, Monty Program was adhering to a “Hacking Business Model” written by Monty and Zak Greant several years earlier (you can google it). It was actually an appendix to everyone’s contract. Part of the HBM gives ultimate decision making power to the employees: “a decision can be taken … if 50% of the company will vote yes to the proposal.”

    During my time at the company such voting was never used, except for this one time. The issue of transferring the MariaDB project to a non-profit foundation (specifically including trademark and websites) was discussed at an employee-only session at the company meeting in Istanbul 2010. After this discussion the proposal was brought to an email vote on the company internal email list “all@” on Oct 22. The email thread ends on Nov 3, where I tallied the results as:
    – 7 employees voted in favor of transferring MariaDB assets to Software in the Public Interest (not the Open Database Alliance, which was considered dead at this point, after 15 months of stalling this issue)
    – 1 person voted for an undefined “compromise proposal” (essentially more discussion)
    – nobody voted against the proposal
    – the rest had no opinion

    It’s notable that 7 in favor was exactly 50% of the employees at the time. While I would never want to name who voted what, it is perhaps worth pointing out that Monty did not participate in this email thread and is therefore not in any of the above categories.

    Since half of the employees were in favor of transferring MariaDB trademark and websites to the SPI, I proceeded to bring this matter to the Monty Program board. (…which consisted of Monty and 2 of his business partners, all of whom were also members of the newly founded board of SkySQL). The result of the employee vote was however unanimously rejected and overruled by the board.

    I resigned a few days after that meeting. The outcome of the board meeting was not a surprise to me, but I had decided to call for an employee vote anyway just to make a point and have an explicit record and decision of the rejection. (The discussion happening here today was of course completely foreseeable…)

    I would also like to state for the record that I have never before mentioned this vote, nor the overruling of it to anyone outside Monty Program. I am only forced to do it here since Monty has made such a blatant, public and baseless accusation against me.

  5. Regarding your comment

    “MariaDB is a corporate open source product. It is no different to Oracle MySQL in that way. Oracle has been up front and honest about it the entire time MySQL has been part of Oracle, everybody knew where they stood (even if you sometimes didn’t like it)”

    I would say that one difference is that MariaDB is completely GPL and doesn’t contain any close source modules like in the Enterprise version of Oracle. MariaDB is also committed (and technically forced) to stay under the GPL.

  6. Pingback: What about OpenSource and Trademarks

  7. Being a paid contributor to mariadb foundation I’ll throw my hat into the ring here. Back when MariaDB first rolled out I instantly joined, rolled up my sleeves and promoted MariaDB at every engagement. I personally de installed Oracle MySQL at a lot of companies and deployed MariaDB. I believed (and still do) that MariaDB was a superior product to Oracle MySQL and I liked the foundation model far better, we all saw what Oracle did to MySQL – “Enterprise” and “crippleware”. I also started a linkedin MariaDB group and invested time to promote MariaDB and the group I founded.

    All great and happy until SkySQL got into the fray, first they demanded that I turn over my linkdedin group to them, “Why” I asked this is a user group promoting MariaDB – you are welcome to become an admin in the group that I build. SkySQL reply “No!” we want it all eventually they contacted linkedin disbanded my group of neatly 1000 members and started a new one. Very heavy handed, very Oracle like practices and very bad move for MariaDB overall.

    What SkySQL refused to grasp is that MariaDB was gaining popularity only because the volunteers like myself did the leg work to promote MariaDB, without us it will be dead in the water.

    When I learned that SkySQL grabbed the trademark and the whole thing and I gasped, the company already heavy handed the community and now be even worse in its practices, and that is exactly what happened.

    My opinion is that the trademark belongs to MariaDB foundation and the foundation should chart the course for the future of MariaDB simple as that and I’ll put my efforts and money behind that. aka SkySQL is under pressure to make money – I’m sure investors are pressuring, but they badly chose the same route as Oracle/Sun alienating volunteers and its strongest supporters.

    All and all I’m not happy with MariaDB/SkySQL – I’m considering to fork yet again for a truly open source project, yes project and not a product the same model as PostgreSQL.

    The legal squalling will only alienate the contributors leading to eventual demise – learn the lessons of Sun and Oracle please and do not repeat the same mistakes.

  8. It’s important to note that the Enterprise “value add” (i.e. proprietary plugins) was started back at Sun – it’s certainly nothing new or changed now that MySQL is at Oracle.

  9. Nice research! I like the link you establish between trust and honesty, and how that’s not really a given in the case of MariaDB. You’ve written “whatever their motives” when it comes to creating a valuable trademark for potential buyers. This is one of my biggest doubts with respect to the MariaDB brand. Some of the original MySQL AB people have sold MySQL to Sun for a billion dollars. They’ve gotten rich. After not having been happy with Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, they forked the database again, and tried to hi-jack the IP back into a new company, in order to … sell it again?

    This lack of honesty and openness about their true motivation is even worse than the complexity of legal entities created. And I don’t even really believe that there are bad intentions. They’re just not good at PR.

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