Archive for October 21, 2007

Trademarks for Freetards

[ music | Black Eyed Peas – Let’s Get Retarded ]

Ok, this is getting really stupid. One might classify it as retarded. In this Gobuntu non-free package list wiki page, Mozilla’s trademark policy is called “draconian”. I should point out to the Ubuntu crowd that Ubuntu’s trademark policy is incredibly similar, with nearly identical restrictions. And in a major blow to Debian fans, Debian has a trademark policy too. Both boil down to the following ideas:

  • The organization owns exclusive rights to the name in question with respect to computer software/operating systems (depending on how broadly they enforce the name, and how narrowly a court may restrict them).
  • You can make minor changes to the product and still call it by the trademarked name.
  • You may not in any way use that name for commercial purposes that could cause confusion. Forget about opening “Ubuntu In-Home PC Repair” or “Debian Computers Inc.”
  • If you’re not sure if you’re within these rules, ask.
  • If you break these rules, or your use of their name could start to cause confusion in the market, they can and will tell you to alter your practices or even cease using the name.

Why do they need these rules? Because a trademark is IDENTITY. These organizations, just like you and me, need to protect their names and reputations. If I start hawking “Debian Web Browser” that contains spyware, I am damaging Debian’s reputation. If I start giving away “Ubuntu OS” for free, and it’s just FreeDOS with Ubuntu branding, that’s trading on Ubuntu’s good name and can make people think I’m REALLY giving out Ubuntu, when I’m not.

And what about their permission to use it with minor changes? If I change the default bookmarks to my website, and give that away in Ubuntu, that’s nothing major. If I change the default wallpaper, and add my awesome new band’s music to the desktop, and add my really cool “Catapult” game that I wrote. That’s pretty minor. However, if I make the default wallpaper Tubgirl, change the bookmarks to porn sites, remove all networking, and make it turn on the PC speaker at top volume all the time, that’s going too far because I could make people think this is what these distributions are really like. Don’t you think Microsoft would love to be able to get away with trashing user expectations this way?

Well, Mozilla has the same rules. Debian went further than Mozilla was willing to allow, however. So, Mozilla said, “Let us look at your changes and we’ll think about it.” Debian handed the changes over in one giant monolithic patch, which is very difficult for one person to go over, because they have to reorganize it all themselves to really see what’s going on. Debian didn’t want to split it out into separate patches. Mozilla was willing to look at Debian’s changes, Debian wasn’t willing to meet Mozilla half way by making the changes easy to understand. An impasse arose. So Mozilla asked Debian to just stop using the Mozilla trademarks if they insisted on doing things their way. Mozilla can’t and wouldn’t try to stop Debian from redistributing their code changes, that’s what open source software is all about. Debian was well within their rights to keep their changes.

Luckily, for a long time the Mozilla code has had a simple compile time switch that enables you to turn off the trademarked branding and either use the generic branding, or your very own custom branding. It’s incredibly simple. The Debian devs had broken that option in all their changes. Let me repeat that. They broke that switch. The very thing that would make this dead simple THEY BROKE. This was the REAL CAUSE of the Debian outrage. They fucked up the branding switch, and it was hard to fix because they fucked it really well and it was going to be a fair bit of work to either fix it, or manually remove the branding.

Let me make my personal opinion of this clear. BOO-FUCKING-HOO. I guarantee you if I was distributing my own respin of Debian in which I broke Apache, Perl, bash, and set X to only run desktops rotated 180 degrees, Debian would pitch a royal fit, justifiably so. They tell me to stop calling it Debian. “Oh, well, that’s hard because I went through and hardcoded the name ‘Debian’ into all the places you see it now.” Debian wouldn’t care.

Trademarks are not copyrights. Trademarks don’t cover source code. You can build a 100% OSI-compliant build of Firefox from the public sources, and you can even pick to use the GPL, LGPL, or the MPL as your license of choice if you want to use and redistribute the code. But you can’t break stuff and call it Firefox. That’s someone else’s identity, and they’re not going to let you make it look bad.

And honestly, it’s not even a choice. It’s the law. Trademark law states that trademark holders must enforce their trademarks or they risk losing them forever. Ever ridden on an escalator, gone to a laundromat, or purchased anything made of nylon? Those were once trademarked terms, but they became so generic in use the holders lost their trademarks. Xerox very nearly lost their trademark, as have Kleenex, and Band-Aid. Adobe urges people not to say “photoshopped” and Google asks you to “search using Google” but not “to google”. Having your trademark become a verb is even worse than becoming a generic noun.

So the next time you want to freak out because an organization is protecting their trademark, try to remember that the code is still open source, they’re just protecting their identity. You wouldn’t like it if someone passed themselves off with your name, would you?

Yours truly, Asa Dotzler.

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