Linus wants money to protect the Linux trademark

Summary: If a trademark owner doesn't protect their mark, it loses its meaning and may eventually go lower case -- Xerox becomes xerox. But how can you protect a mark when one of its chief values is that it's given away?

registrered trademark
One story we didn't cover here last week was Linus Torvald's moves on protecting the Linux trademark.

Through the OSDL, Torvalds has launched a Web site called the Linux Trademark Institute. "Your source for information on and licensing of the Linux trademark." Put simply, Linux is trying to raise money in order to protect the word Linux from abuse.

But the initial moves didn't go over very well, possibly because of how LMI's Australian affiliate went about things, with Perth lawyer Jeremy Malcolm demanding $5,000 each from about 90 companies, leading to headlines like "companies to be charged for free software." 

That's not how trademark law works. It's not a user fee. It's a commercial responsibility. If a trademark owner doesn't protect their mark, it loses its meaning and may eventually go lower case -- Xerox would become xerox. But how can you protect a mark when one of its chief values is that the product is free?

In Linux' case, you ask those who are using the mark commercially to contribute to the common defense. As the LMI Web site states, this article represents fair use of the trademark. But if you have a software distribution which you want to call Linux, or if you're going to call yourself a Linux consultant, then they want you to pay and help defend the mark.

Mr. Peabody
Pamela Jones of Groklaw calls all this a "tempest in a teapot" but I'm not so certain. To understand why, set the Wayback Machine for the year 1994.

The Web was just being spun, Lisa Loeb and Bobby Brown were big pop stars (I swear, I saw the sign), we all had more hair, and William Della Croce Jr. of Boston filed for the Linux trademark. It was granted in September, and Croce started sending out letters far and wide, demanding that everyone in the industry pay him 25% of their revenues for using his trademark. It all went to court, and in 1997 the trademark was assigned, personally, to Linus Torvalds.

Since then, Jon "Maddog" Hall of Linux International says, some $300,000 has been spent on registration and legal fees to defend the mark around the world. He continues:

We have tried to make the licensing as unobtrusive as possible, tailored to the amounts of money that people might be making off the use of the mark, and with an eye to keeping the cost to non-profits and user groups as low as possible. We also have to re-license the name periodically so we can protect against "name squatting" (ala URLs) and defunct entities who no longer need the name they registered.

The trademark laws of the world were not created in the days of the World Wide Web, or even the Internet, where unscrupulous people can take advantage of a good name for a good idea and create havoc for people who want to start legitimate industry in their territory under a mark that is registered in some other country. By protecting the mark of "Linux" in as many countries as possible, LMI makes this type of deliberate extortion MUCH more difficult and MUCH more expensive.

You may all complain now.

Topics: Open Source


Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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