Why trademarks are important in open source

Groklaw recently wrote about the upcoming OpenSUSE project creation, and just now Hudson project volunteers are renaming to be Jenkins. These are both excellent examples of why trademarks are important to a successful open source project, and definitely deserve more attention.

Trademarks, you say? Isn’t that some complex legal stuff that big companies care about? Well, yes – it’s certainly complex law – but you should care about it too. Think of a trademark as a pointer to your project’s reputation. A trademark is the symbol that represents your project’s reputation, and associates that name with your product in the minds of the consumers. In both cases, the community behind the project is paying attention to branding for the project – and working to ensure that control over the project’s name stays with the community, not a commercial company.

Trademarks ensure that consumers – in our case, either end users or developers – know where the Foo project comes from, and know to come to the correct Foo project to participate and get the code. You may have the best Foo in the world, but if no-one knows about your Foo (or it’s name), then it’s had to attract much interest.

This is a key reason for Apache being a non-profit corporation (likewise, a reason for many other truly community-led open source foundations). The Apache Software Foundation controls the trademarks associated with it’s projects, and manages them for our projects. As a vendor-neutral organization, the ASF can ensure that ownership of our trademarks stays with the larger Apache community, and can’t be co-opted by a commercial entity.

Apache’s trademark policies are posted publicly. We have guidelines for how our PMCs should represent Apache marks on our sites, and are working on important updates to the Apache Event Branding policy.

Another good resource on trademarks in open source is Passport Without A Visa: Open Source Software Licensing and Trademarks. It’s worth learning enough about trademarks to ensure that you consider it for any new projects you work on. Note, however, that trademark law is complex, and many of the answers to trademark questions are “It depends”. Thus it’s always recommended to consult legal counsel if you have serious questions about trademarks.