Open Source and Trademarks

Posted by Jim Jagielski on Tuesday, November 11. 2014 in Open Source

In any area of business and activity related to business, the idea behind, and protection of, trademarks is critical. But what some people don't understand is that in the Open Source/Free Software world, trademarks are, in many ways, the only real asset that a FOSS project has.

Think about this: in most normal areas of software development, the software itself (the code) is intellectual property. It is itself an asset, with value. But in an open source world, the code is free and open to all. "Having" the code isn't any sort of asset, since anyone can also have it as well; in fact, it is encouraged to share that code with as many people as possible. So whereas in other circumstances, the resulting work behind the effort of coding is an "asset", and, in many ways, the most valuable asset, with FOSS projects it is the least valuable.

So what is the main asset of a FOSS project?

The trademark. The brand and goodwill associated with that project. And for many projects, it's the only asset, and it's the main reason why people contributed to, and use, the code. For example, one significant reason why projects enter the Apache Software Foundation is that they want to leverage and benefit from the Apache brand. Being an Apache project automatically gives a project a sense of credibility, as well as a promise on how it will be governed and managed, and how code provenance will be done. It is a reputation obtained from years and years of doing things the right way; The Apache name means something. It has become a brand.

With this in mind, it should be somewhat obvious why FOSS projects walk that fine line between wanting (and needing) to protect their trademarks (and brand) yet, at the same time, allowing people to use those marks in as unrestricted ways as possible. On one hand, you want to use that brand to encourage even wider sharing and usage of the code, yet on the other hand, you must protect those marks from usage which would damage the brand, or confuse people. And so most FOSS projects or foundations create trademark policies that describe acceptable and unacceptable usage.

So I was shocked and extremely disappointed to hear that GNOME is having to battle Groupon over Groupon's unacceptable use of the GNOME mark. There are only 2 possible ways this could have come about:

  1. Those at Groupon tasked with this effort are so incompetent and clueless that they never heard of GNOME
  2. That Groupon is simply thumbing their noses at GNOME and, by extension, the entire FOSS community as well.

This is totally unacceptable, and is, IMO, an attack on all FOSS projects and foundations. When well-funded corporate entities, especially those who directly benefit from FOSS, go ahead and simply decide they can steam-roller over the FOSS community, it is time for all of us to take a stand. Help GNOME defend their mark!

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