April 19, 2002

Linux Mark Institute: Protecting the Linux trademark

- By Jon "maddog" Hall of Linux International -

Trademarks and Linux make a funny combination. Normally, a trademark is meant
to be kept private, and the company who owns the trademark is expected to
"defend" the trademark's every use to maintain ownership. Linus Torvalds is
the owner of the trademark "Linux" in several countries around the world, but
instead of keeping the usage for himself, he would like to see everyone using
the term "Linux" for any legitimate need.
If the world was perfect, all you would have to do is put the term "Linux"
into the public domain just like the word "brick." However, if the word "Linux"
was in the public domain, then Linus could not prevent someone from using
the term "Linux" in what he feels are negative ways.

For example, there was a site started called linuxchix.org. This was great,
as it met a real need and made people happy. Unfortunately, there was soon
a site called linuxchix.com, which advertised pornography. While some people
might not complain about this, Linus and I (and more importantly Tove, Linus'
wife) felt that applying the term "Linux" to pornography was not the
proper thing to do. So an appropriate letter from our attorney, Mr. Gerry
Davis of Davis and Schroeder, to the offending party quickly got the reference
to pornography removed from the URL.

People also repeatedly try to license the name "Linux University." Linus and
I both agree that we would like to see MANY Linux universities around the
world, so we refuse to let anyone claim to be THE Linux University. If you
want to trademark "Linux University of New South Wales," we will probably
license that, but not just "Linux University."

Are these rules arbitrary? Probably, but we do the best we can to allow as
much of the openness and freedom as possible.

There are other reasons for protecting the term "Linux," and to do so, the law
states that we have to "vigorously defend" the trademark. In legal terms, the
easiest way of doing this is to license the term "Linux" out to people who
wish to use it.

For a long time this process was "hit or miss." Linus did not want to be
involved, and so he delegated the decision-making to me. I was often
traveling, or missed the request in the large volumes of email I get, and so
I (seemingly) was reluctant to answer. In addition, from time to time, there
were issues that came up that required funding of legal activity, either
inside the United States or outside of it. Even though Mr. Davis has been most generous
with his time, there are still clerical fees to be paid, documents to be
filed, and court costs that (unfortunately) have to be paid from time to time.
These funds have run over $100,000 over the past five years, and have been
paid for by Linux International. As a safety net for this type of funding,
and to make the licensing process run smoother, Mr. Davis suggested we set up
a non-profit association called The Linux Mark Institute, which charged a small amount of money to those people wishing to create
a trademark utilizing the word "Linux." We felt that by making the amount
reasonable, and by making the procedure fairly painless, we could both
satisfy the Linux marketplace and create a "war chest" of money to help
finance those few cases that actually go to more stringent legal battles.

We also hope to use some of this money to obtain the trademark of "Linux" in
other countries, so we can protect the Linux trademark there, too.

As of now, the Web site works more or less "automatically." People who submit
a request for a name are reviewed by a staff member of Mr. Davis' office. If
there is any question about the name, or any issue or dissension, then the
request is forwarded to me. If I have any questions, or any indecision on the
name, I forward that along to Linus. But those kinds of issues have not occurred for
over six months.

We structured the site to allow "fair use" of the word "Linux," so those
people or LUGs trying to create a few T-shirts or mugs to hand out could
do that without paying the licensing fee. But if someone was going to make
a real trademark, and particularly one that was going to be used to keep other
people from using that same trademark, then they have to license the name.

In this world there are laws, and there are people who would use those laws
to their own selfish gain. The Linux Mark Institute is just another way of
making sure that the Linux community is protected into the future from those

Jon "maddog" Hall is executive director of Linux International.

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