FOSS Trademarks are Probably OK

The protection that projects have from trademarks can often seem to be a weapon used to remove the freedom of hackers to change the source code and redistribute.

Examples include the Firefox trademark agreement, where Mozilla will not allow a re-distributor to call their package ‘Firefox’ unless all code has first gone upstream. This policy is used to make sure everybody get’s Mozilla’s Firefox and not someone else’s Firefox that they couldn’t control the quality for.

Then there is the example of Oracle’s “OpenOffice.org” trademark which, isn’t allowed to be used by anything other than the code from Oracle. And since the split of the Open Document Foundation has forced the creation of a new brand ‘LibreOffice’ so that the open source code can continue to be developed in the open.

The third example is the corporate control of brands. Canonical the company owns and controls the Ubuntu brand, whilst building a large community of volunteers to build that brand on their behalf. There are agreements in place which allow the Community Council some control over uses of the trademark in the community and the general balance between community interest and corporate control is struck. Some may agree and other vehemently oppose this arrangement, but in all it’s about strong control over the brand name.

Trademarks exist to ensure that the trust we have in the quality and source of our real world products is assured within a given area and within a given industry. These limitations allow for names to be reused in other industries and other areas where the products wouldn’t be confused anyway.

So in essence, if free software projects want to maintain the trust of their users and maintain the trust of their distribution, then we need to utilise trademarks or something like trademarks to do it. Whether we use product trademarks or organisational trademarks such as ‘Firefox by Debian’ vs ‘Firefox by Mozilla’ is up for some debate.

Overall, my feelings on the matter of trademark use in Free and Open Source projects is that they are probably, currently, a slight positive in effect. You may disagree, please comment if you do or even if you don’t.

Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

Our venerable friend Jono Bacon has posted an interesting blog post concerning the outcome of the bug to enable the nonfree installation of Flash on Ubuntu. It would have manifested itself in the installer, by having the nonfree checkbox switch on by default.

  1. The problem: We can not have what we want in the default install.
  2. The current solution: Provide a set of proxy packages which can install the functionality after the installation, moving the liability and problems from Canonical to the user.
  3. The problem with the current solution: It requires manual user interaction.
  4. Problem with checkbox solution: It’s against Ubuntu policy and the Technical Board Voted it down.

I’m a big proponent of “nonfree offsetting” (few people are, but I’m sticking to my guns); If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their balance with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.

It’s funny because I was talking to Rob Savoye, winner of this year’s free software award, at LibrePlanet 2011. Overcoming the technical barriers to finishing Flash 10 support in Gnash, now that there is good documentation from Adobe, is so close. But the only businesses investing in Gnash are embedded systems; systems who need a Flash player to work on ARM and other architectures. Red Hat isn’t one of them, neither is Canonical, and I tire of not hearing from these companies on why they can’t invest more into solving these issues with an economic nudge.

Even if you don’t want to give the money to Rob, then send in your own engineers to get the job done!

Back to Jono: his position is that this issue is down to design. In his world view, installing nonfree Flash is required, it’s the only option and the one that we offer when you install Ubuntu; let’s assume that’s right for a moment. He’s asking designers to mull over how to achieve the right kind of communication to users to encourage them to click on the checkbox: This in itself is a policy paradox.

Anything we do to encourage users to install nonfree, nonessential components, is simply against the Ubuntu policy of shipping free software and encouraging its use. It’s hard to claim that this is a balance of free vs. nonfree with a straight face when your stated aim is to encourage users to install nonfree components.

In the comments to the blog post there are some very good responses from Alan Bell and ethana2, but there are also some comments from users who I think are more pro-compromise then they are pro-free-software. An example from Cleggton (I don’t mean to pick on you personally Cleggton, you’re just the easiest to quote):

If we take philosophy out of the argument for a second, then it seems clear that the users who care whether they are non-free, patent questionable etc are the ones that are most able and informed to uncheck a checkbox. And the ones that aren’t aware of the difference are our new users, who need YouTube just to work out of the box, lets make it work and then lets educate them later.

I hear this kind of appeasement argument an awful lot. Users don’t care (so we’re told) and free software is too hard to achieve. Not everyone of our users is going to care, especially when we so rarely tell them about free and open source software and it’s practical ramifications to them personally. But even that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Our users expect us to care about the things that will benefit them. In fact they expect us to care for them with careful policies. Even if polices get in the way of jam today; they’re there to make sure there’s jam tomorrow and users trust us to make those calls on their behalf.

Besides, you know what your mother always said about getting your own way without putting any work in: It trivialises the issues involved and waylays expectations and the reality of our situation. Then it’s much easier to ignore real solutions like spending the time creating free software and instead continue to make excuses on why we should keep the toxic workarounds like the nonfree Flash player in our ecosystem.

What are your thoughts?