Two Open Source Communities Battle It Out Over Trademarks

from the why-can't-trademarks-be-open-source dept

Trademarks are a fickle beast. It seems that no matter what you do, no matter what you name your product or service, no matter how you color your shape your logo, someone comes along and claims that you are infringing their own trademark. Sometimes the trademarks are within the same industry, sometimes they seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet, for some companies it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you are using something they think is too close.

Not long ago, an organization was formed to promote the creation and use of open source hardware, hardware that has an open spec and design that others can copy and modify. This organization, Open Source Hardware Association, upon creation, had the community vote on a logo to represent the initiative and brand any hardware meeting its qualifications. Unfortunately, another open source organization, the Open Source Initiative, feels that the logo chosen by the OSHWA community is much too close to its own. According to the complaint, OSHWA's logo looks too similar to OSI's logo. You can see the two below.
Open Source Hardware and Open Source Initiative Logos


The main similarity that has OSI complaining is the keyhole shaped opening in the middle of the two logos. Because of this similarity, OSI feels that people might associate its organization with the products of OSHWA. OSI feels that it could be problematic as it doesn't want its brand diluted.

Perhaps it should be approaching this dispute differently. The OSHWA logo was chosen by the community. Which means that on some level, the open source community felt inspired by the work of the OSI and wanted to pay homage to it. Perhaps the OSI has recognized that fact as it is offering OSHWA a licensing offer. Unfortunately, OSHWA feels that even that license will not work.

OSI has indicated that they would grant a trademark license to OSHWA. This would give OSI the means to protect their trademark. However, accepting such a license would establish OSI as the owner of the crowdsourced ‘gear’ logo. It would make OSI responsible for deciding where and when the logo can be used, effectively giving OSI control of defining what can and cannot be labeled as open source hardware.
Such a license would limit OSHWA's autonomy as an organization. Something that neither it nor its community want. So it is weighing other options as well. These include ignoring OSI's complaint or sourcing a new logo. Fortunately, it looks as if OSHWA and its community are leaning more toward the latter than the former.

But while it is busy dealing with this conflict, it cannot continue with its core mission of promoting the use of open source hardware. This dispute has even been scaring some people away from participating until it can be worked out.
Dave Vandenbout, who runs X Engineering Software Systems in North Carolina, was putting the gear mark on open-source boards, but is suspending that until the issue is sorted out. The gear logo told people that the board is open-source and they can build upon it if they wish.

"If it is found that the Gear logo infringes OSI's trademark, then I suppose I could receive a cease-and-desist letter. That might be pretty disastrous for me if I had to actually scrap my inventory," Vandenbout said.
This is certainly not a good way to start an open source movement. If this dispute keeps up, it might undermine all the effort its founders and board have put in to building a brand. If it cannot build confidence in hardware makers now, it might not recover. Fortunately, it is doing all it can and keeping the community informed about new developments. Something that will really help it stay strong.

OSHWA has stated in an update to its blog post that it is going into renewed talks with OSI and hopes to come to a conclusion that will be agreeable to all parties. Hopefully, it will also keep both parties out of the court room. Yet, I find it a tad disappointing that two organizations whose main stated goal is promoting the use and building upon the work of others through open source are even having such a dispute at all. You would think that such a philosophy would transcend the nature of their core work to other areas such as trademark.


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  1. icon
    rick (profile), 11 Aug 2012 @ 6:33pm

    Re: Re: Open Source Trademarks

    If they completed the gear, then they could be infringing on Techshop's gear logo (http://www.techshop.ws/). They use the gear for quite a lot of their teaching projects, so they are rather proud of it.

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