Using Trademarks to Stifle Free Software

The news today is that GNOME, the organisation behind one of the two most popular free and open Linux desktops, may lose the exclusive use of its name over a trademark spat.

Gnome_w_StandIt turns out the Groupon, the deal-of-the-day website, has brought out a point-of-sale tablet called GNOME, the same as the GNU/Linux desktop environment. Although stunned as they were at the infringement on their trademark, the people who build GNOME politely requested Groupon change the product’s name, since it is infringing on the mark the Free Software organisation registered in 2006. Not only did Groupon refuse, but proceeded to register 28 more infringing names.

brandIf the people of GNOME don’t want to have their mark diluted and forever associated with a completely unrelated and proprietary product (which they obviously don’t), they have to file against 10 of the applications before December 3rd. This will cost in the region of USD 80,000 and the organisation is currently running a campaign in a bid to collect all the funds they need to fight Groupon. You can help them reach their goal by donating through PayPal.

But this has happened before.

In 1994 a gentleman by the name of William R. Della Croce, Jr. trademarked the very name “Linux”. Della Croce’s did not produce any kind of product related to the free operating system, hence his motivations were based on pure greed. He went as far as sending out letters requesting 25% on royalties of products that used the word. This included CDs, books, magazines, for-sale distributions, and so on.

After a yearjon-maddog-hall of litigation, the plaintiffs, that included Linus Torvalds himself, Linux Journal magazine, Yggdrasil computing and others, backed financially by Red Hat and DEC, managed to wrestle the mark back for the benefit of the community and the world. In the settlement, Della Croce was awarded the cost of registering the mark and a sum that has never been disclosed.

Unfortunately that was not the end of the Linux trademark woes. Trademark is quite different from copyright in that the former must be actively defended or you lose it. For that reason, the Linux Mark Institute was founded. Jon “Maddog” Hall was in charge of the Institute until it became part of the Linux Foundation. Up until 2007, LMI defended the Linux trademark from unscrupulous name squatters, spending in the process over USD 300,000, much of which came out of Hall’s own pockets, along with, as Hall put it, a huge amount of time and resources.

Update 23:45 CET: Groupon has bent to the pressure of the interwebs and has announced they will rename their product.

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