Before I start, I would like to make it clear that the below is entirely my personal view, and not necessarily that of the GNOME Foundation, the Debian Project, or anyone else.
There’s been quite a bit of interest recently about the petition by Software Freedom Law Center to cancel the Software Freedom Conservancy’s trademark. A number of people have asked my views on it, so I thought I’d write up a quick blog on my experience with SFLC and Conservancy both during my time as Debian Project Leader, and since.
It’s clear to me that for some time, there’s been quite a bit of animosity between SFLC and Conservancy, which for me started to become apparent around the time of the large debate over ZFS on Linux. I talked about this in my DebConf 16 talk, which fortunately was recorded (ZFS bit from 8:05 to 17:30).
This culminated in SFLC publishing a statement, and Conservancy also publishing their statement, backed up by the FSF. These obviously came to different conclusions, and it seems bizarre to me that SFLC who were acting as Debian’s legal counsel published a position that was contrary to the position taken by Debian. Additionally, Conservancy and FSF who were not acting as counsel mirrored the position of the project.
Then, I hear of an even more confusing move – that SFLC has filed legal action against Conservancy, despite being the organisation they helped set up. This happened on the 22nd September, the day after SFLC announced corporate and support services for Free Software projects.
SFLC has also published a follow up, which they say that the act “is not an attack, let alone a “bizarre” attack“, and that the response from Conservancy, who view it as such “was like reading a declaration of war issued in response to a parking ticket“. Then, as SFLC somehow find the threat of your trademark being taken away as something other than an attack, they also state: “Any project working with the Conservancy that feels in any way at risk should contact us. We will immediately work with them to put in place measures fully ensuring that they face no costs and no risks in this situation.” which I read as a direct pitch to try and pull projects away from Conservancy and over to SFLC.
Now, even if there is a valid claim here, despite the objections that were filed by a trademark lawyer who I have a great deal of respect for (disclosure: Pam also provides pro-bono trademark advice to my employer, the GNOME Foundation), the optics are pretty terrible. We have a case of one FOSS organisation taking another one to court, after many years of them being aware of the issue, and when wishing to promote a competing service. At best, this is a distraction from the supposed goals of Free Software organisations, and at worst is a direct attempt to interrupt the workings of an established and successful umbrella organisation which lots of projects rely on.
I truly hope that this case is simply dropped, and if I was advising SFLC, that’s exactly what I would suggest, along with an apology for the distress. Put it this way – if SFLC win, then they’re simply displaying what would be viewed as an aggressive move to hold the term “software freedom” exclusively to themselves. If they lose, then it shows that they’re willing to do so to another 501(c)3 without actually having a case.
Before I took on the DPL role, I was under the naive impression that although there were differences in approach, at least we were coming to try and work together to promote software freedoms for the end user. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve now become a lot more jaded about exactly who, and which organisations hold our best interests at heart.
(Featured image by Nick Youngson – CC-BY-SA-3.0 – http://nyphotographic.com/)