December 18, 2001

Red Hat revamping trademark policy in response to community questions

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Red Hat is revamping its trademark policy after a NewsForge story on the company's enforcement of that policy spurred dozens of comments and questions from the Open Source community.

Since the release of Red Hat 7.2 in October, the company has been more actively pursuing what it sees as trademark violations by CD resellers such as UnixCD.com and CheapBytes.com. Red Hat is asking those retailers to not call what they sell "Red Hat," because of customer confusion over whether the resold product is a complete version or includes service from Red Hat.

The NewsForge story generated dozens of responses, some supporting and some criticizing Red Hat's trademark enforcement, and several questions. Among the questions, posted and unposted: What if the CDs were labeled as Unofficial Red Hat? What about LUG members who trade CDs labeled Red Hat? What about distributing under a pseudonym?

Melissa London, director of corporate public relations for Red Hat, says it's too early to answer some questions, because the trademark revisions are still in the works. "We are committed to encouraging the large community that uses Red Hat Linux versions and will continue to do so," she says of the policy revamp. "This includes LUGs, students, hobbyists and others that rely on the free distributions."

London says the new trademark policy will likely provide alternative trademarks to be used with redistributed products. The current controversy started when the founder of the UnixCD.com auction service objected to a cease and desist letter he received from Red Hat's lawyers earlier this month.

"We want users to understand what they are entitled to -- a difference of service and support levels exist for downloaded and purchased products, and consumers have already been confused in buying the replicated product expecting to receive support directly from Red Hat," London says. "Likewise, our boxed product includes printed manuals and also some third-party applications which only Red Hat is licensed to distribute. We will be addressing as many of these scenarios as possible in new guidelines.

"We still want to provide a product that is broadly available at no cost
or a very low cost, and we will continue to do so," she adds.

London was able to provide answers couple of "what-if" questions, based on the general direction of Red Hat's trademark policy revisions.

NewsForge: What's Red Hat's position on members of LUGs trading CDs with downloaded Red Hat on them? Is it OK to call these Red Hat Linux 7.2, or something similar?

London answers: "Probably, but with a codicil that states that this is the free download, or not supported, etc."

NewsForge: If you auction Red Hat on eBay, what's Red Hat's preference? Would prominent notice saying "not supported by Red Hat" be more acceptable than what UnixCD and other places are doing right now?

London: "This will likely be better clarified in policy revisions, but my understanding
is that a statement such as free download, not supported, etc., would need to
accompany it."

Asked about a distribution project that changes the name, such as "LeRoy's Linux, based on Red Hat 7.2," London says that issue also will probably be addressed in the new trademark policy.

Meanwhile, UnixCD and CheapBytes are trying to get around the Red Hat trademark policy by renaming Red Hat on their sites. UnixCD founder Jason Phillips didn't immediately return an email sent to him this morning, but his site is now marketing Red Hat Linux 7.2 under the name, "RH Linux 7.2."

CheapBytes declined a request for an interview, but has this notice on its store page: "Looking for CDs containing the downloadable version of the XXX XXX Linux distribution? Hint: The name has to do with an article of clothing to keep your head warm. We can't call it by it's real name due to trademark law. Our president will be providing a statement and information at a later time regarding this subject. Please be informed about this matter prior to jumping to any erroneous conclusions."

Asked about the CheapBytes practice of hinting at the name, London says the new trademark policy may address that issue better than she can right now. "I don't suppose that we would try to stop that, but let's wait for new policies so I can get better clarity," she says. "The point is that we don't want to limit anyone using Red Hat Linux, but we just want limit any expectation that people will be receiving any 'official' support or workbooks from Red Hat."

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