Now careful with that trademark policy

Community open source projects that become successful are often commercially relevant. Hence, to prevent abuse, the project founder or a supporting foundation acquires a trademark to the name of the project. If you want to build a business based on the project, you’ll want to use the trademark in advertising your product, and if you can’t, you may have a hard time succeeding. Hence you need to look at the trademark policy of the project, which is where it can get dicey.

There are two parameters to look at:

  • Restrictions on commercial use (the actual policy). Does the policy allow commercial uses of the trademark or does it explicitly forbid them? Most policies disallow the use of the open source project’s name in product names but won’t stop you from nominative (“regular”) uses in describing your product. In some cases, most notably Linux, you can even request to use the trademark in your products, but this is less common.
  • Ability to influence the policy and its enforcement. While some policies may appear benign, if it is not clear how to change and enforce the policy, I recommend caution. Only a community project with a defined way of influencing the policy, most notably through a foundation, let’s you sleep well at night. You want to have a say in how the policy is applied and how conformance is tested and not be at the mercy of the owner of the trademark.

In summary, you should look beyond copyright towards the handling of trademarks, which are usually not covered by open source licenses.


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