In association with heise online

16 September 2009, 09:49

Trademarks - The dinosaur in the room

Branding is just as vital to the success of FOSS projects as it is to proprietary software. This article explores the importance of trademarks for open source.

by Richard Hillesley

Trademark law, like copyright and patent law, is often abused and misused, and can have effects and consequences that are inconsistent with the best objectives and principles of free and open source software. But, just as free software licensing in the form of the GPL relies upon the existence of copyright law to make it effective, so the companies that distribute free software rely upon branding and trademark law to give the services they provide a unique identity, and to protect themselves from misuse of their names and brands.

Red Hat logo Everybody knows and recognises Red Hat by its name and trademark. Red Hat releases all its software under free software licences. Under the terms of the licence(s) this software can be copied and sold by other companies, and sometimes is - both CentOS and Oracle, with Unbreakable Linux, have duplicated and marketed re-branded versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but have not replicated Red Hat's success in Red Hat's corner of the market. Because nobody owns Linux or the software that makes a GNU/Linux distribution, the only protection Red Hat has against unfair competition in the Linux market are the trademarks it holds on its name and logo.

Red and White Hat Software

Red Hat's instantly recognisable moniker is the stuff that marketing people dream of and pay millions to try to create, but rarely ever achieve. The logo defines the company, and nobody can mistake the company, or the man in the Red Hat for anything, or anybody else.

Like many good things the name came about by chance. As Mark Ewing tells it: "In college I used to wear my grandfather's lacrosse hat, which was red-and-white striped. It was my favourite hat, and I lost it somewhere in Philadelphia in my last year. I named the company to memorialise the hat. Red and White Hat Software wasn't very catchy, so I took a little liberty."

Bob Young
Bob Young, former Red Hat CEO
Source: Edans on flickr
But it was Bob Young who transformed Red Hat into a brand. For the first months and years Young worked "in my wife's sewing closet in Connecticut, and Marc in a spare room in his apartment in Durham (North Carolina)." Ewing built the software, and Young distributed the brand, giving away CDs and selling hats and t-shirts, and within six years of its first release the company went public with a valuation upwards of 5 billion dollars - which wasn't bad for a company whose sole purpose was to make and sell free software. Bob Young, incidentally, has three versions of 'The Hat' story and a video of him telling all three is available on the Red Hat website.

According to Jon 'maddog' Hall "By the time people recognised what (Young) was doing it was too late. He had built the Red Hat brand to the point where a lot of people in the US would say 'Red Hat is Linux, and Linux is Red Hat'. Like Kleenex and tissues, and Heinz and ketchup, Red Hat had become a generic term. Bob Young did an amazing job... He would say, 'Hey, give away the software, and sell the t-shirts and hats' but what he really meant was: 'Give away the software, and sell the services.'"

Next: The Happy Dinosaur

Print Version | Permalink:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • submit to slashdot
  • StumbleUpon
  • submit to reddit

  • July's Community Calendar

The H Open

The H Security

The H Developer

The H Internet Toolkit