Howdy all,

A perennial issue in free software is: what to do about trademark

Recently on the ‘debian-legal’ forum, someone working at an organisation
that produces free software made a very reasonable request. Paraphrased,
the request was:

    Here is our GPL-licensed software, which also has a trademark; Here
    are the trademark terms, which we've modified to allow OS packagers
    to patch and redistribute it. Is that good enough to satisfy
    software freedom, and if not, what more do I need to ask from our
    lawyers to modify the terms?

It rarely gets as friendly as that: someone has done a lot of work to
advance the freedom of this work, and has even got trademark
restrictions altered to try to reconcile them with software freedom.

Here is an excerpt from my response, as a way of raising the topic for
general discussion aside from that specific example. I'd love to hear
other people's thoughts.

> […] my ideal response to this mail is "looks good, awesome!". My
> second ideal response is "tweak the language this way" and our lawyers
> are happy with that.

Trademark is a tricky area for software freedom.

The software freedom of the recipient of a work includes the freedom to
modify the work to any degree, for any purpose, and redistribute the
result as free software.

Trademark, on the other had, has a laudable but largely opposite
purpose: to ensure the public can know the provenance of a product, by
means of *restricting* what recipients may do with its associated mark.

A trademark license author that seeks to maintain the integrity of the
mark has very little scope to restrict the recipient's modifications of
the work before violating the recipient's software freedoms as above.

So there are few – if any – examples of generally-applicable trademark
licenses that simultaneously maintain the integrity of the mark and
preserve the full DFSG freedoms of the recipient.

The Debian project has wrangled with this issue for the Debian trademark
<URL:>, which also provides some guidance
on the purpose of the license, what is and is not permitted, and how to
use the mark.

The openSUSE project also has a Trademark Guidelines document
<URL:> (is
that a trademark license?) for the openSUSE mark.

But notice that these still require that, for anything but a narrow
class of modifications, the recipient must remove the mark if they wish
to redistribute the result.

If the same were true for a work being considered for inclusion in
Debian, IMO it would not pass the DFSG without removing the mark. This
has been done with, for example, the works from the Mozilla Foundation
(Firefox is free software only in the absence of its trademark
restrictions, so we have re-named and re-branded it Iceweasel; and so on
for the other products under the same trademark restrictions).

So these are still not examples of trademark terms in harmony with the
DFSG: the only way to satisfy both, in these cases, is to remove the
mark and redistribute the free-software work without the original brand.

I hope that helps. Others may be able to give you a different angle, but
I believe the incompatibility is still not resolved between the intent
of trademark and the intent of software freedom.

The archived copy (Message-id: <>) is at

 \       “Even if the voices in my head are not real, they have pretty |
  `\                                           good ideas.” —anonymous |
_o__)                                                                  |
Ben Finney

Free-software-melb mailing list

Free Software Melbourne home page:

Reply via email to