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Trademarks Considered Harmful To Open Source 226

An anonymous reader touts a blog posting up at PC World titled "Trademarks: The Hidden Menace." Keir Thomas asks why open source advocates are keen to suggest patent and copyright reform, yet completely ignore the issue of trademarks, which can be just as corrosive to the freedom that open source projects strive to embody. "Even within the Linux community, trademarking can be used as obstructively as copyright and patenting to further business ends. ... Is this how open source is supposed to work? Restricted redistribution? Tight control on who can compile software and still be able to call it by its proper name? ... Trademarking is almost totally incompatible with the essential freedom offered by open source. Trademarking is a way of severely limiting all activity on a particular product to that which you approve of. ... If an open source company embraces trademarks then it embraces this philosophy. On the one hand it advocates freedom, and [on] the other it takes it away."
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Trademarks Considered Harmful To Open Source

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  • by levell ( 538346 ) * on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:15AM (#27894189) Homepage

    I disagree with the whole underlying point of the article. I think Mozilla should be able to stop someone taking their source, adding a whole bunch of unstable "improvements" as patches and calling it Firefox. It would damage a brand that is one of the best brands that FOSS currently has. It doesn't stop people getting the browser, if they don't Mozilla's restrictions they could call it, say, EarthHorse.

    The article throws around terms like "restricted distribution" and "severely limiting all activity" but gives examples like CentOS where CentOS and Red Hat exist happily together but with Red Hat still able to build up a brand with some protections.

    The article ends "just like patents and traditional copyright, it's totally incompatible with the spirit and ethos of open source software.". People here may not like the length that copyright lasts for but the GPL relies on the fundamental idea of copyright. Similarly there may be some issues with trademarks but if so they need patching not a whole sale revolution as this article seems to suggest.

  • by GameGod0 ( 680382 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:26AM (#27894233)
    It's about protecting your users, and protecting your project.

    Take a large, reputable open source project like Audacity. If some scammer comes along and bundles their own version of Audacity with some spyware and tries to distribute it under the Audacity name, this is damaging to both users and the reputation of the software. Audacity's defense against people like this is their trademark. Nobody will confuse real "Audacity" with any ripoff, because nobody else can use the name.

    This also protects the developers, who have worked hard to produce great software, and who deserve to have it recognized as something special on their resumes/CVs. Preserving the reputation (ie. name) of your software project helps ensure their contributions to the project aren't devalued.

    Lastly, the Mozilla example in the article can easily be countered by the infamous OpenSSL/Debian fiasco, where a Debian packager incorrectly patched OpenSSL and created a vulnerability. This was certainly damaging for OpenSSL's reputation, even though it wasn't their fault. If Ubuntu decides to patch Firefox and introduces bugs, it's Firefox (NOT Ubuntu) who looks bad to users. IMO this is good justification for exercising ownership of your trademark.
  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:27AM (#27894237)

    Just because source is open does not give you the right to hijack the work of a team and call something by the same name.

    It does give you the right to take the source and make something else with it, and that is great. But because so much of the reward of open source is working on something that many people get to use an enjoy, diminishing the power of trademark removes a strong element of motivation by allowing names to mean less through dilution.

  • by dov_0 ( 1438253 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:28AM (#27894245)
    "A Rose by any other name is still as sweet."
  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:36AM (#27894277)

    I think trademarks are great as it stops the Microsoft's of the world to make it their own, which they could otherwise in a heartbeat. Imagine "Windows 7 integrated with Microsoft's new browser Firefox!" Which sounds great (90%+ marketshare) until you realize that MS can fork it, and continue to embrace, extend, and extinguish it as their own while providing updates through their channels (getting around GPL because most people just don't care and will let the computer do anything for them automatically that it can, having the upgrade channels is a powerful thing) with most nontechy people never knowing.

    I can't even imagine the scenario if the Linux trademark was like that as well.

  • by noidentity ( 188756 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:37AM (#27894283)

    In theory, the the idea of the GPL exists only in opposition to copyright... it is a "necessary evil" for an future good. If there was no copyright, there would be no GPL... two sides of the same coin.

    Nope, you're confusing that with BSD-style licenses. BSD-style = do what you want with the source, including releasing products without source code. GPL = if you release product using source, you must release source you used to build product. Without copyright, BSD-style is all you'd have.

  • by noidentity ( 188756 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:39AM (#27894293)
    After reading that article, I agree, and am going to start my own website and magazine called PC World.
  • by siloko ( 1133863 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @01:47AM (#27894325)

    The value of trademarks is psychological. Most people attribute value, warmth, and comfort to a name.

    Blimey! I think I'm using trademarks wrong. The ones I use just let me identify a product. You get Value! and Warmth! and Comfort!, I want my money back!

  • I agree, but only to a certain extent. It's certainly reasonable to ask those who create forks to choose a different name rather than distributing using exactly the original name. However, it's not unreasonable, I don't think, for the fork to use some derived name that BOTH 1) makes clear it is not the original project; but 2) makes clear that it is derived from the original project. For example, the principal GNU Emacs fork is named XEmacs. Would it really be better for us all if GNU had taken a hard line on that and forced Lucid to choose a name for their fork that didn't contain the word "emacs" within it at all?

    So, sure, it's fine in my book if Mozilla doesn't want a modified Firefox to be called just "Firefox". Maybe more distinction than Emacs/XEmacs is also reasonable; e.g. a GtkFirefox or something could imply that it's an official GTK version. But they seem to want to take this to the extent of trademark law, and not even allow derived names that are clearly distinguished, like DebianFox or something. I don't see how that really fits within free-software culture.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 10, 2009 @02:04AM (#27894375)

    I disagree, the problem with copyrights and patents is that they restrict the distribution and development of the 'protected' ideas.

    The only restriction a trademark places is that you can't represent yourself as something or someone you're not.

    I doubt the author would be happy to find the movie he rented for his children Trademarked as "Disney's the Lion King" was actually hardcore porn.

    This sounds like sour grapes that some developers can't coast off the work of others.

  • Your Mark (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OnlyHalfEvil ( 1112299 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @02:15AM (#27894423)
    I take it all back, I think this is a dumb idea.
    Keir Thomas

    If trademarks are a restriction of freedom, then me using Keir's name to endorse my own ideas sounds like exactly the type of freedom he's arguing for. So what if it breeds confusion and implies an endorsement that doesn't actually exist?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 10, 2009 @02:18AM (#27894433)

    After reading the article the only thing I can say is that the author has no clue about how Trademarks work. The examples don't even make sense. The protection afforded by Trademarks to the consumer is important - more so than other forms of intellectual property. With open source, a trade mark does not prevent you from redistributing the product under a different name or a derivative name. Trademarks are one of the few forms of intellectual property that makes sense. Why is that? Because they evolved organically and were not constitutionalized.

    In contrast, copyright has been steadily extended to the point where it no longer serves its original purpose of rewarding the creator. Now copyright rewards the business that buys it up and monetizes the product after the creator is dead. While patent has been extended as a concept to the point where it inhibits the creation of new ideas. Give us back an 8 year patent and a 13 year copyright.

  • by m50d ( 797211 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @02:44AM (#27894535) Homepage Journal
    Ubuntu could "make" Firefox less stable simply by poorly managing underlying infrastructure. It's not in their interest to do so, obviously, but if it were to happen, and they didn't make sure to properly test a new release using enough scenarios, then when Firefox crashes it would make Firefox look bad (unless users figure out that it was fine when it was running on the previous version of Ubuntu).

    And they're already doing that with KDE.

  • by Nick Ives ( 317 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @02:48AM (#27894549)

    This is what happens when people use the term "IP" - they get things like Trademark and Copyright totally confused.

    With FOSS you're free to modify + redistribute. If the project you're redistributing is trademarked then you're going to have to change the name for your modified version.

    In fact the GPL requires that modified versions be marked as changed; obviously the best way to comply with that is to change the name.

  • by wisty ( 1335733 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @03:16AM (#27894673)

    Trademarks do seem a little harmful to open source. It's a bit of a pain to explain why Firefox is the same thing as Ice Weasel. Inconsistent terminology can hurt a field - just look what happened to postmodernism.

    But "Considered Harmful" is a bloody big call. That's comparing trademarks to "gotos". Ouch. Open source has other worries - like web applications (online data processing), proprietary devices (iPhones), companies turning GPL programs into XML wrapped libraries, the .net framework, walled garden communitites (facebook), and proprietary file / stream formats.

    Trademarks? Big deal.

  • by supernova_hq ( 1014429 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @03:22AM (#27894703)

    The guy who wrote this insane piece is at best a troll, most likely an expendable pawn.

    And he was able to find another troll (kdawson) to post it on slashdot!

    It's amazing, every time a stupid article is posted, I scroll to the top and guess who poasted it? kdawson!

  • CentOS does the same thing with the whole of Red Hat. They just strip out the RH trademarks. Should they be allowed to call it Red Hat? No. Does removing the trademarks restrict their freedoms in any way? Also no.

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @03:37AM (#27894755) Journal

    Trademarks do seem a little harmful to open source. It's a bit of a pain to explain why Firefox is the same thing as Ice Weasel.

    Would you prefer having to explain why some random IE-based China-made shareware/adware browser that's called "Firefox Pro" isn't really Firefox at all?

    Because that's pretty much where we'd be if it wasn't trademarked.

  • by Yetihehe ( 971185 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @04:19AM (#27894901)
    Well, not really. Giving names to something can alter perception. Blindfold someone and give him rose oil to sniff, saying it's perfumed sludge.
  • by impaledsunset ( 1337701 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @04:37AM (#27894961)

    Trademarks are a way to protect the brands of an organization and products. And to help the customers from being deceived. Open source is a tool that you use in creating your product or program, and free software is a way you treat your customers. How would trademarks hurt any of these is beyond me. Really.

    Copyright and patent law might need a reform, and workarounds like we do with FOSS, but trademark doesn't. It's arguably doing it's job. When I get get X by company Y I'm given some assurance that this is indeed X by company Y, and not something else someone decided to call that way. I don't see any reason that one should want CentOS to call themselves "Red Hat Enterprise Linux". I would be very happy if they don't.

    Nobody restricts distribution or anything. You were allowed to use and improve the technology, but there is no reason you should expect to use the name. Does anybody really want people using FOSS code to create malicious programs and then name them "Linux" and "Firefox"? If somebody wrote a book and put it under Creative Commons license he didn't give you the right to change the content of the book and claim that it is still written entirely by you.

    Even if trademarks did hurt (and at worst they cause minor inconveniences), they play an important role which is a bit more important than someone's ability to "compile software and still be able to call it by its proper name". Sorry.

  • The article throws around terms like "restricted distribution" and "severely limiting all activity" but gives examples like CentOS where CentOS and Red Hat exist happily together but with Red Hat still able to build up a brand with some protections.

    Given the choice of running RHEL under a different name, having to pay mucho $£, or not being able to run it all I know which I'd choose.

    The author of TFA is clearly deluded if he mentions CentOS - it's as good a counter example as you could find.

  • Look at the title (Score:5, Insightful)

    by trifish ( 826353 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @05:23AM (#27895143)

    Can we please ask the Slashdot editors to avoid tabloid titles?

    The title reads "Trademarks Considered Harmful To Open Source".

    but it should read: "A Random [Uneducated] Guy Considers Trademarks Harmful To FOSS"

    Thanks for listening.

  • RTFA. Go on, do it.


    Done? Now go and re-read the comments.

    Oh, done already? Now tell me - where has anyone claimed that the author of TFA was a shill? What has happened here is the guy got in a bit of trouble over use of the Ubuntu trademarks. Rather than just admit that he had made a mistake, he decided to start spewing FUD about how trademarks are bad.

    That act - and that act alone - is why he has been called a troll.

  • by vrmlguy ( 120854 ) <> on Sunday May 10, 2009 @09:48AM (#27896233) Homepage Journal

    Suppose I build a custom car, I bought a sound system say, from JVC, for it, it doesn't quite fit so I take it apart to change its proportions. Does JVC have a ground to sue me for trademark violation?

    If you peel off the JVC logo and stick it on your mod, then yes, they do have grounds to sue you. You need to look back to the OpenSSL/Debian debacle. Yeah, maybe you're "merely changing the case", but what if your change causes a minuscule scratch on a CD whenever it gets ejected? For a while, error-correction hides the damage, but eventually you've got a stack of shiny coasters. Meanwhile, your friends who own similar cars have asked you to do the same mod for them, and you've been putting JVC's logo on the modified versions. Two years down the line, who will your victims call when their media stops playing?

    That's why JVC doesn't want to you put their trademark on case mods, and that's why Firefox doesn't want their name on someone else's code.

  • by mizzouxc ( 985151 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @10:38AM (#27896533)

    The problem with this is that I'm sure loads of people don't know that Iceweasal is firefox rebadged. People are more likely to buy/use a brand rather than what can be viewed as a generic. This is where OSS and Patents collide. They hurt the open source community while also keeping a good open source product out of the end user's hands.

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Sunday May 10, 2009 @10:45AM (#27896613) Journal
    I completely disagree. Open Source is about freedom. It is not protecting you from your ignorance. If you always want to go with the 'brand' and remain ignorant of possibly better alternatives you should be free to do so.

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