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.