Trademark Was Made to Prevent Attack of the “Clones” Problem in App Stores
byon July 11, 2022
Suppose you go to your weekly MyTown market. The market runs Saturday and Sunday, and vendors set up booths to sell locally made products and locally grown and produced food. On Saturday, you buy some delicious almond milk from a local vendor — called Al's Awesome Almond Milk. You realize that Al's Awesome would make an excellent frozen dessert, so you make your new frozen dessert, which you name Betty's Best Almond Frozen Dessert. You get a booth for Sunday for yourself, and you sell some, but not as much as you'd like.
The next week, you realize you might sell more if you call it Al's Awesome Almond Frozen Dessert instead of your own name. Folks at the market know Al, but not you. So you change the name. Is this a morally and legally acceptable thing to do?
This is a question primarily regarding trademarks. We spend a lot of time in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community talking about copyrights and patents, but another common area of legal issues that face FOSS projects (in addition to copyright and patent) is trademark.
In fact, FOSS projects probably don't spend enough time thinking about their trademark. Nearly ten years ago, Pam Chestek — a lawyer and expert in trademark law as it relates to FOSS and board member of OSI — gave an excellent talk at FOSDEM (2013), wherein she explored how FOSS projects can use trademarks better and to ensure rights of consumers — particularly when dealing with bad actors. Our own Executive Director, Karen Sandler, had also spoken about this issue as well. These older talks, in turn, spawned an ongoing conversation that continues to this day in FOSS policy circles.
Specifically, last week, we learned that the Microsoft Store was changing their policies, ostensibly to deal with folks (probably some of whom are unscrupulous) rebuilding binaries for well-known FOSS projects and uploading them to the Microsoft Store. Yet, this is a longstanding issue in FOSS policy. FOSS experts in this area would have been happy to share what's been learned over the last ten years of studying this issue.
The problem Microsoft faces here is the same problem that the MyTown market folks face if you show up trying to sell Al's Awesome Almond Frozen Dessert. The store/market can set rules that you will no longer be able to sell if you are found to infringe the trademark of another seller. The market could simply require the trademark holder to take trademark action themselves, or it could offer some form of assistance, arbitration, or other-extra-legal resolution mechanism0.
There is often temptation in FOSS to give special status to maintainers, or the original developer, or the copyright holder, or some other entity that is considered “official”. In FOSS, though, the only mechanism of officialness is the trademark — the name of the upstream project (or the fork). The entire point of FOSS is that for the code itself, everyone should have equal rights to the original developers, to the maintainers, or to any other entity.
We have faced this with our member project, Inkscape. While the Inkscape Project Leadership Committee has chosen not to charge for the version of Inkscape that they upload on Microsoft Store, we did see this very problem for many years before these app stores even existed. Namely, it was common for third-parties to sell Windows binaries on CD's for Inkscape in an effort to make a quick buck. We did trademark enforcement in these cases — not forbidding these vendors from selling — but simply requiring the vendors to clearly say that the product was a modified version of Inkscape. Or, if it was unmodified redistribution of Inkscape's own binaries, we required the vendor to note that the Inkscape project's website was the official source for these binaries.
I have often written to complain about copyright and patent law. I have my complaints about trademark law (and I've seen trademark grossly abused, even), but trademark laws tenets are really reasonable and solid: to ensure consumers know the source and quality of the products they receive.
The problem of concern here is one well handled by trademark. It doesn't need excessive app store rules; we don't need FOSS licenses to be usurped or superseded by Draconian policy. And, this solution to this particular problem has been long-known by FOSS. Pam's talk in 2013 explained it quite well!
The MyTown Market doesn't need to create a policy that forbids you from buying Al's Awesome Almond Milk on Saturday and reselling a product based on it on Sunday. They just need to let Al know his rights under trademark, and maybe offer a lightweight provisional suspension of your booth if the trademark complaint seems primia facie valid. But, most importantly, before it announces new rules with a 30 day clock, MyTown's leadership really should discuss it with the citizens first to find a policy that takes into account concerns of the people. Even if they fail to do that, there are MyTown's elected officials whose actions are accountable to the people. App store companies are accountable only to their shareholders, not the authors of the apps. Companies could benefit by learning that the FOSS community prioritizes respecting authors, protecting consumers' and users' rights, and by understanding that the line between user and contributor should blur. The FOSS marketplace functions because the community works.
0 I hesitate to even suggest that an app store should create an extra-legal process regarding trademark enforcement beyond the typical governmental mechanisms — lest they decide they have to do it. A major problem with app stores is that they create rules for software distribution that are capricious, and arbitrary. We all do want FOSS available on Microsoft, Apple, and Google-based platforms — and as such are forced to negotiate (or, rather, try to negotiate) for FOSS-friendly terms. Ultimately, though, the story of major vendor-controlled app stores is always the story of “just barely” being able to put FOSS on them, because the goal of these entities is to profit themselves, not serve the community. We prefer app stores like F-Droid that are community-organized and are not run for-profit.
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