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trademark licenses and DFSG: a summary

Let's see if, once again, we can make a "a summary" thread an order of
magnitude larger than the original thread. For more context (and
comparison!) you can find the original thread at


On Sun, Oct 09, 2011 at 08:02:01PM +0200, Stefano Zacchiroli wrote:
> […] we need to discuss our general stance on trademarks and the impact
> that trademark licenses (should) have on the content of the Debian
> archive.

Several important points have been raised in the discussion, let's start

a) whether or not Debian practices could cause trademark infringement
b) the role of trademark-like restrictions in the DFSG

Regarding (a), I've sought and obtained legal advice. I've reported
about it in [1]. If we trust such advice---and I see no reason not
to---Debian practices could cause trademark infringements in various
ways including: package names, user visible application names, icons,
logos, etc. OTOH in most cases it seems safe to consider low level
"implementation details", such as installation paths, to be outside the
realm of what trademark law is meant to protect.

On (b), we know that DFSG §4 "Integrity of The Author's Source Code"
explicitly allows authors to require name or version change for
distributing derived works. According to Bruce Perens [2], the
underlying principle was to allow authors to manage and defend their
marks, *as long as* there is a way out (e.g. a re-branded software
version) that is free according to the other DFSG requirements. The
letter of DFSG §4, unfortunately, only mentions software name and
version. If we accept the proposed underlying principle, it would make
sense to extend the interpretation of DFSG §4 to also cover the other
elements typically protected by trademarks such as logos, icons, images,
and visual designs.

At the same time, even when we are *allowed* to keep something trademark
encumbered in the archive without rebranding (either because we
distribute it unchanged, or because the associated trademark policy is
fine with the kind of changes we're interested), we might still have
interest in rebranding. In particular, we should very carefully evaluate
the risk of having to do the rebranding later on during the support time
frame of a stable release (which is a painful thing to do), and decide
what to do accordingly.

[1] http://lists.debian.org/debian-project/2012/02/msg00071.html
[2] http://lists.debian.org/debian-project/2005/08/msg00069.html
    thanks to MJ Ray for pointing this out


Based on all the feedback received thus far and on the considerations
above, here is an different (improved?) proposal on how to deal with
trademark encumbered software in the Debian archive.

- We agree that DFSG §4 allows licenses to request changes of name,
  version, as well as other distinguishing marks for distributing
  derived works

  (I.e. we accept the interpretation of the underlying principle of DFSG
  §4 proposed in [2]. Note that "license" above is used in general
  terms, because many of you correctly pointed out that DFSG care about
  freedoms rather than specific world-wide monopoly rights.)

- At the same time, DFSG §4 does *not* allow licenses to request changes
  in implementation details that do not impact on author or software
  distinguishing marks, no matter what published trademark policies say.

  (Suggested by MJ Ray.)

- Debian should neither seek nor accept trademark licenses that are
  specific to the Debian Project.

  (Suggested by Steve Langasek. In addition to Steve's reasoning, I
  think that doing otherwise would go against the underlying principle
  of DFSG §8 "License Must Not Be Specific to Debian".)

- For trademark encumbered software that could at a given point in time
  be distributed without rebranding, maintainers should carefully
  evaluate the risk of having to rebrand them later on, and seek advice
  from the teams that would be impacted by impromptu rebranding (e.g.:
  security team, release team, ftp-masters).


Going through the above, I suspect that the first provision (extending
DFSG §4) might be controversial. But the more I think of it, the more
convinced I am that it'd be in the spirit of the current wording of DFSG
§4, as hinted by the title of DFSG §4. In fact, renaming alone is
already the most common case of trademark-like restriction and agreeing
to extend it to visual marks wouldn't change anything in term of actual
restrictions on our users.

The second provision is what will guarantee we won't simply accept any
exaggeration that authors might be willing to write down in trademark
policies. We already have some general advice about what is acceptable
and what is not; if the need arises, we can imagine asking for more
software-specific legal advice before proceeding.

Formally, while we could vote on all this, I still hope we can converge
by discussion and consensus. If we do, we could for instance summarize
all this in a position statement and publish it somewhere on the Debian

I'll be eagerly waiting for your comments!
Stefano Zacchiroli     zack@{upsilon.cc,pps.jussieu.fr,debian.org} . o .
Maître de conférences   ......   http://upsilon.cc/zack   ......   . . o
Debian Project Leader    .......   @zack on identi.ca   .......    o o o
« the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club »

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