May 24, 2007

GPE project and Handhelds.org in acrimonious trademark dispute

Author: Nathan Willis

Disagreements between developers from the G Palmtop Environment (GPE) project and the administrators of the mobile Linux portal Handhelds.org now include a trademark dispute. Handhelds.org claims trademark ownership of the name GPE, and has demanded control over the GPE IRC channel. Editor's note:OSI board member Russ Nelson believes the GPE people are wrong and Handhelds.org head George Francis is right. Here's Russ's take on the matter.

GPE is an open source application environment for handheld devices based on GTK+. The project was hosted at Handhelds.org starting in April 2002, but moved to Linuxtogo.org in October 2006.

Changing hosting sites was viewed as a hostile act by some at handhelds.org when it was first proposed, and controversy ensued once the developers decided to make the move. The GPE developers who proposed the move found their Handhelds.org accounts disabled. Links to the new Web site at gpe.linuxtogo.org were removed from the GPE project page at gpe.handhelds.org, access to the wiki was restricted, email addresses were unsubscribed from the GPE mailing list, and messages removed from the archives.

In time, the battle subsided, and individual contributors resumed work. Mailing list traffic and source code commits at the two sites indicate that a majority of GPE developers joined the effort hosted at linuxtogo.org. A number of other, unrelated projects continued to use the hosting services at Handhelds.org.

IRC dispute

The issue of trademarks came to the forefront last weekend, with both parties wanting control of the #gpe IRC channel at Freenode.net. According to Freenode, the channel had been unregistered but in use for some time. Gpe.linuxtogo.org applied for ownership of the channel in November. On March 28, Handhelds.org applied for a number of changes to its own channels, including a request that #gpe be forwarded to a new channel, #handhelds-gpe.

A Freenode staffer, unaware of gpe.linuxtogo.org's prior request due to a large backlog in the processing queue and believing the change to be a renaming convention, made the changes requested by Handhelds.org on May 18. Upon discovering the error, Freenode notified both parties that there had been a mistake. After consulting channel logs, they determined that gpe.linuxtogo.org had in fact been using #gpe, and approved its ownership request.

Subsequently, Handhelds.org sent a "letter of notice and demand" email to Freenode and CC:ed its own attorney, insisting that Freenode return ownership of #gpe to Handhelds.org. Freenode responded that it had acted in good faith, unaware that there had been any dispute over the channel's ownership, and that in light of the dispute it would hold #gpe in trust until such time as the two parties came to an agreement. The gpe.linuxtogo.org developers then created a new channel, #gpe-project, for their own use.

GPE trademark information

Handhelds.org claims that GPE is a Handhelds.org trade name, and has been since the beginning of the GPE project. The gpe.linuxtogo.org development team asserts that it represents the active project, that the GPE name preceded the project's time at gpe.handhelds.org, that GPE was never owned by Handhelds.org, and that Handhelds.org never acted as anything other than a service hosting provider.

Regarding the GPE trademark, a www.handhelds.org page states: "BootBlaster, BootBlaster3900, bootldr, Familiar, GPE, Handhelds.org, Intimate, ipg, iPKG, ipkgfind, ipkg-utils, MailSentry, and Opie are Trademarks of Handhelds.org, Inc." The site's CVS repository indicates that this sentence was added in the May 15 revision. Prior to that date, the page did not made trademark claims to the listed terms, extending as far back as 2000, according to the archived versions at the Internet Archive.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) records trademark filings on Opie, GPE, and iPKG, all under the name of Handhelds.org administrator George France, all filed on March 6, 2007. The other marks listed as belonging to Handhelds.org do not turn up in any filings through the USPTO's trademark applications and registration retrieval server.

The status of all three filings is "newly filed application, not yet assigned to an examining attorney." All three cite dates in the spring of 2002 as the date the mark was first used in commerce.

Although it is difficult to say with certainty when the name originated, GPE is mentioned in a December 2001 message to the handhelds.org iPaq mailing list, written by GPE developer Nils Faerber and pointing to a GPE project page at Faerber's employer, kernelconcepts.de.

Freenode says that it will continue to retain ownership of the #gpe channel -- which currently contains pointers to both #gpe-project and #handhelds-gpe -- until a resolution is reached. It notes that the approval of a trademark in one country does not guarantee ownership of an IRC channel on Freenode, since the network serves an international community. Handhelds.org says it is now looking for a new IRC hosting service.

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