Free As In… Trademarks? Linux And The Small OEM

GNU/Linux (hereinafter referred to as “Linux”) is a mature operating system that is freely available, with many different versions from which to choose.

Linux users and advocates speak of “freedom” as being one of the hallmarks of Linux, and many computer OEMs are already pre-loading Linux on the hardware they sell.

A commonly shared quote is,

“Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.”  —Richard Stallman

But, in today’s world, there are other things we must consider – trademark and copyright laws are hot topics in the news.

Commercial Linux companies have invested time and other resources building their brands, including distinctive and recognizable trademarks such as names and logos.

As such, it is understandable that they would be interested in protecting their respective images, and so when we are using their names and images to promote Linux, we must be sure that we understand the legal requirements.

In other words, how “free” is “free as in free speech”, really?

My interest in this began on May 28, 2012, during a discussion with friends on Google+ – the original post discussed uncertainties surrounding the legitimacy of a small OEM using Canonical’s Ubuntu trademarks for the purposes of advertising the sale of computers pre-loaded with the Ubuntu operating system.

Curious, I followed a link to the site AskUbuntu! and from there to Canonical’s own trademark policy website.

As the process required to sell computers running Ubuntu seemed more complicated than I had previously assumed, I set out to find out exactly how to do it, as well as to compare Canonical’s policies with those of other organizations.

I decided to sample a small group of free and open source operating systems. As there are hundreds from which I could choose, I limited my selection to those with a large share of the market, as well as some others which I find personally interesting.

As I am aware that there are hundreds of versions of Linux, please be aware that I did not leave out any particular version for any reason other than convenience and personal preference. There are many versions of Linux which would be acceptable for my needs and the needs of others.

In no particular order of preference, I contacted the following organizations for guidance on trademark usage policies, if required:

  • CentOS
  • Debian
  • Fedora – contact not required, terms and conditions for trademark use clearly stated on website
  • FreeBSD
  • Gentoo – contact not required, terms and conditions for trademark use clearly stated on website
  • openSUSE
  • Scientific Linux – contact not required, terms and conditions for trademark use clearly stated on website
  • Ubuntu

If the information was not clearly stated and explained on the respective web sites i.e. if I had any uncertainty whatsoever as to the requirements expected of me should I choose to advertise and sell computers running that particular version of Linux, I made contact – otherwise, I considered the terms and conditions acceptable for my purposes.

In each case, whether by email or online contact form, I identified myself and my company (Epoch Six Nuclear Incorporated), and stated that I was intending to sell computers to engineering consulting companies, with a free and open source operating system pre-installed.
I communicated to each organization that I wished to respect their trademark policies, and asked for additional information or clarification as required.

I received replies from Debian and FreeBSD on May 29, 2012, the same day I made contact.

Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, replied to me on May 30, 2012.

As of June 10, 2012, I have not received replies from CentOS or openSUSE.

Debian and FreeBSD both indicated that my intended use met the terms and conditions of their trademark policies, and I was requested to reply that I had read and understood these terms and conditions.

Once I did this, I received confirmation that I was able to use the trademarks of both organizations to advertise my products.

The email from the Canonical representative asked for additional clarification regarding the number of units I estimated that I would sell in the first year of business.

The representative indicated that if I planned to ship in excess of 10000 units in the first year that Canonical would be keen to have my company as an OEM partner.

When I replied that my estimated targets would be significantly lower than 10000 units, the The gentleman stated, “If you wish to pre-install Ubuntu as a service to your customers without our involvement, that’s fine, as long as you do not charge a fee for the software itself”, and referred me to the trademark policy page for more information regarding how to use the Ubuntu trademark.

I have reviewed the page in depth since then, however, it is quite detailed and to be honest, I am still not clear whether or not I would be breaching Canonical’s trademark policies if I chose to use the Ubuntu name and logo to advertise the sale of my systems.

If anyone can help clarify this, please feel free to do so. I would like to know exactly what is required to advertise and sell small numbers of computers pre-loaded with Ubuntu.

I decided to share my findings here – without prejudice – so that small OEMs considering free and open source operating systems might educate themselves, to ensure that they are not breaching the trademark policies of the organization(s) in question, and potentially exposing themselves to legal issues.

Linux is an excellent operating system and a worthy first choice for many applications, however, computer OEMs must be aware of other requirements where commercial interests are involved.

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