'Linux' trademark doesn't matter, says Stallman

'Linux' trademark doesn't matter, says Stallman

Summary: The freedom to run and modify software is more important than what you call it, according to the GNU founder


Richard Stallman, chair of the Free Software Foundation, said on Thursday that the Linux trademark fracas in Australia has distracted attention away from the real issue — that of freedom to distribute and change software.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald,  Stallman said: "Free software means you're free to run it, study it, change it, redistribute it, and distribute modified versions — the way cooks do with recipes. What names you're allowed to call a program is a side issue."

The Linux trademark became an issue last month after a lawyer acting on behalf of Linux creator Linus Torvalds wrote to 90 Australian companies asking that they sign a statutory declaration waiving exclusive rights to the trademark's use.

Stallman's words put him at odds with some members of the free software movement, who feel that the Linux name is worth protecting because it's so widely recognised. Steve D'Aprano, operations manager at open source vendor Cyberspace told ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet Australia, "If Linux were to fall out of trademark protection, there would be nothing to prevent unauthorised, shady and unscrupulous individuals and organisations from using the term for cheap knock-offs, cashing in on the name or other products which harm the reputation of Linux, and by association, ourselves." D'Aprano said that his company would sign the statutory declaration.

The companies would then be required to obtain a license from the Linux Mark Institute costing $300-$600 (£167-£333) for continued use of the term. Perth lawyer Jeremy Malcolm later revised these figures to between $200 and $5000 for a company to sublicense the Linux trademark.

This introduction of charges led some in the open source community to accuse Torvalds of cashing in on the success of Linux. Torvalds refuted this, saying the cost of the legal fees to chase potential sub-licensees outweighed the licensing revenue from them.

Stallman thinks the issue of naming the product is not so clear cut. "Most of the time, when people call something 'Linux', it's the GNU system with Linux as the kernel. Maybe this policy will encourage people to call it GNU," Stallman told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I prefer to say GNU/Linux' so as to give the kernel's developer a share of the credit."

Topics: Apps, Software Development

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • I totally agree with Richard Stallman.
    You can take all the GNU products and
    compile them on SCO,BSD,Solaris,AIX,UnixWare,
    or SV4-whatever and have the same look and
    feel of GNU/Linux. Before the Linux kernel,
    that is what most of us GNU/Unix people did.
    The kernel is only a small piece of GNU/Linux.

    Well Done Richard, and Thank You for GNU!!!

    Tim Cumberworth
  • "Free software means you're free to run it, study it, change it, redistribute it, and distribute modified versions
  • I have to agree with "Anonymous Consultant," RMS gets a little too testy about a stand-alone citation of the "Linux" moniker, but that's HIS problem, in my view.

    It IS hypocritical of RMS to deny the value of Linux trademark protection, IF indeed he was denying it. Seems he was suggesting the concept of FOSS was more important than any one name, which is true as far as it goes. BUT he should have - and may very well have - supported Linus's right to protect Linux's trademark. But we don't know, and Stallman does have an attitude about "Linux."

    Don't get me wrong. RMS has done miracles in the propagation of FOSS, educating people about the process and, of course, the GPL. The source of RMS's, ahem, oversensitivity likely results from his history with the GNU kernel. To whit, *HIS* favorite OS, "GNU/Hurd" didn't draw the dev support and popularity of Linux, ever. It didn't die stillborn, it's still around after a fashion, but it just didn't cut it. No big deal from an OSS standpoint. Some OSes/Distros make it, lots don't. It's called evolution in action...
  • As someone had already pointed out, the name "Linux" is being used in FUD campaigns. For example, "Linux Business News" has nothing constructive to say about Linux. So some poor schmuck comes along and wants to learn a bit about Linux and finds this "Linux Business News" and assumes it will inform him about Linux because it has "Linux" in the name. Will this person ever consider using Linux for his business after reading a week of "Linux Business News"?

    If some company doesn't want to pay the license fee they can always change their name - say from "Linux Institute Australia" to "GNU Institute Australia". Something tells me RMS would be furious to learn of a company with a name like that - presumably because they don't represent the GNU Foundation.

    All in all RMS seems to be confusing trademark protection with software freedom.
  • To anonymous consultant: Trademarks do not implement any of the freedoms to: run it, study it, change it, redistribute it, and distribute modified versions. Copyright + the right license does. Trademarks are pretty orthogonal to these. Please elaborate on how having or not having registered a trademark affects the freedom to run or study some code. And if I have to rename something to redistribute it in modified form, it's a nuisance, but hardly a help. Trademarks only help brand recognition, something possibly even counterproductive in free software.
  • News flash to RMS. Your 15 minutes of relevancy ended over 5 years ago.
  • RMS isn't the one who's confused here, folks, and he's not being hypocritical either - he's being absolutely consistent, as always. Stallman is an evangelist, and his message never wavers from the gospel he's preaching, which is that of software freedom.

    What he's saying is that we shouldn't be distracted by the trademark issue because that only covers use of the brand name, not use of the software. He's saying that enforcing a trademark by requiring a paid license for the use of the mark is not inconsistent with the GPL or the spirit of software freedom. He's reminding people for the millionth time that free software is about freedom, not price. The Free Software Foundation promotes freedom to use software, not freedom to use brand names.

    Of course, Richard would like a little recognition for all the pioneering work he's done starting way back in the '70's, decades before there was a "FOSS movement", to provide and promote free software, so he prefers the term "GNU/Linux" over just Linux (or just GNU -- from the article: "I prefer to say GNU/Linux' so as to give the kernel's developer a share of the credit."). The observant will note that Richard's preferred nomenclature would still require the Linux trademark license if used in a brand name (and possibly a license from the FSF as well, I'm not familiar with their trademark policy).

    Even the author of this article seems confused on the issue, as are several of those who have commented so far. This is common, which explains why RMS feels the need to emphasize the freedom aspect when software licensing issues are the topic of discussion.
  • News Flash to Long-time linujx user

    your 15 minutes will never arrive. You criticize RMS. Is that because you will never contirbute a millionth of what RMS has given the community.

    I'm a long time user too. I just maintain respect for the founders.
  • I must say that I do think it's necessary such in order to prevent, let's say, MS from using linux to make their dirty money.
  • Using Stallman's own logic, it also does not matter if it is called "Linux" or "GNU\Linux". If the software is free to use, add too or modify then it also does not matter what it is called either, right? If there are more "important" things to worry about than name copyrights then there is more "important" things to worry about then what it is called wouldn't you agree Mr. Stallman? I'll bet bucks to dollars that he would not be able to swallow that pill.