In association with heise online

01 May 2013, 12:32

What's in a (Free Software project) name?

by Glyn Moody

Trademarks, names and reputation. Glyn Moody looks at the problems that arise when trying to keep control of your reputation and the different approaches taken by open source software projects.

Is it Linux or GNU/Linux? It seems such a trivial matter, but of course in the world of free software, it is anything but. It would be interesting to tot up how many thousands – millions? – of words have been written arguing for one form or the other, and how many thousands of hours have been expended.

The discussion continues in part because geeks like accuracy, and also because they rather like arguing and scoring points over their opponents. But there is a deeper reason why people get so engaged by issues of naming, I think, and that's because attribution matters hugely in the world of free software.

This flows from the origins of free software, which was written entirely by people who were not paid to do so. That meant the motivations were different: for some it was an ethical issue, for others a question of fun. But for all, a key kind of payment in the absence of money was recognition for the coding that they had carried out, and the peer esteem that flowed from it. In particular, hackers don't like seeing others claim credit for work that they didn't do. That's still true today, even when many are paid to write open source code: attribution is still a crucial issue.

That's remarkably close to the original impetus behind trademarks – although more recently, trademarks have been abused like many other ideas that started out from reasonable premises. Here's a good description of what trademarks are supposed to do:

Trademarks exist to help consumers identify, and organizations publicize, the source of products. Some organizations make better products than others; over time, consumers begin to associate those organizations (and their trademarks) with quality. When such organizations permit others to place their trademarks on goods of lesser quality, they find that consumer trust evaporates quickly.

That comes from an extremely detailed document setting out Mozilla's policy on trademarks; it continues:

People's trust in our name and products is crucial to us—especially, when it comes to intangible products like software, trust is all consumers have to decide on which product to choose. We also are the caretakers of the trust our community members have placed in us. We created this Trademark Policy to protect both the public's and our community's trust in the Mozilla Marks.

This explains the other side of reputation: not only is it important to give credit where it is due, but it is vital that people do not try to trade off the reputation of others to boost things that have nothing to do with them. As Mozilla explains:

on an all too frequent basis, we receive reports about websites selling the Mozilla Firefox browser, using the Mozilla Marks to promote other products and services, or using modified versions of the Mozilla Marks. The problem with these activities is that they may be deceptive, harm users, cause consumer confusion, and jeopardize the identity and meaning of the Mozilla Marks. Such cases range from good intentions but improper use of the trademarks (e.g., overenthusiastic fans), to people intentionally trading on the brand for their own benefit and/or to distribute modified versions of the product, to a clear intent to deceive, manipulate and steal from users in a highly organized and syndicated fashion.

That's pretty much standard trademark theory. But in the world of free software, there's another consideration that flows from the underlying desire to share, and to allow others to build on your work.

Next page: Trademark policies

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