Google forges Open Usage Commons to manage open-source project trademarks, lobs hot-potato Istio at it

Google says it has set up an organisation to provide guidance and advice on handling and protecting trademarks belonging to open-source projects.

The ads'n'search giant said today: "[O]ne of the places we've historically seen projects stumble is in managing their trademarks - their project's name and logo ... today we are announcing the Open Usage Commons (OUC), an organization focused on extending the philosophy and definition of open source to project trademarks."

The new org has had some initial funding from Google, and has three sets of trademarks to manage for starters: those of Angular (Typescript web framework), Gerrit (code collaboration tool) and Istio (a service mesh for Kubernetes). All three of these projects are closely associated with Google.

Chris DiBona, director of Open Source at Google and Alphabet, said the project arose from the internet goliath's own experience: "Currently we have more than 3,000 active open source projects. Google ends up hitting all the intellectual property edge cases before anybody else ... one of the places that open source hasn't been great is around trademarks."

He continued: "If you look at open source licenses they either don't mention trademarks at all, or they disclaim them. What that meant was people just read the Apache license and figure it applies to everything. We decided we need to fix this for open source software. Open source makes it clear for any piece of software what you can do and what you can't do."

"We wanted to bring that kind of comfort and clarity to trademarks and establish guidelines in accordance with the open source definition for trademark usage," the Googler added to The Register.

The OUC is an organization with six directors, DiBona being one of them. There is a second director from Google, Jen Phillips; Allison Randal from the Software Freedom Conservancy and the OpenStack Foundation; academic researcher Charles Isbell; University of Michigan professor Cliff Lampe; and ex-Googler Miles Ward, now CTO at cloud consultancy and reseller SADA systems.

What will the OUC actually do?

According to its FAQ, the org will provide a neutral home for trademarks, assistance with conformance testing and establishing usage guidelines, and "handling issues around trademark usage that projects encounter."

Why separate the stewardship of the trademark from the stewardship of the code, though, we asked. Istio, for one, was supposed to be handed over from Google to an open-source foundation. For now, just the trademarks have moved, and to the newly founded OUC. The thinking behind the transfer of the Istio trademarks to OUC is documented here by the software's team, for what it's worth.

"It's like, why do we choose the Apache license? We wanted to have an independent third-party that people could refer to and trust," DiBona replied. He added that amassing a large number of trademarks is not the goal of OUC; it is more about providing guidance and a strategy on managing and protecting trademarks in the open-source world. "I would love people to adopt the guidance," said DiBona, "and not have to worry about the OUC."

Will today's move have any effect on whether, or when, Istio as a whole might be donated to an open-source foundation? "This doesn't change any of that," said DiBona, "for good or for bad. If your perception is that [Istio stewardship] needs to be fixed, then it still needs to be fixed."

Why create a new organisation rather than using an existing one - such as the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), which absorbed Kubernetes from Google in 2015. "The reason we created OUC is not to be in competition but to be in service to the CNCF, the Apache Software Foundation, the W3C, Free Software Foundation Europe, the Software Freedom Conservancy, and others," said DiBona. "We want to take on this problem of trademark policy. We think it's important."

Meanwhile, Chris Aniszczyk, CTO of CNCF, told us: "Our community members are perplexed that Google has chosen to not contribute the Istio project to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, but we are happy to help guide them to resubmit their old project proposal from 2017 at any time.

"In the end, our community remains focused on building and supporting our service mesh projects like Envoy and linkerd, and interoperability efforts like the Service Mesh Interface. The CNCF will continue to be the centre of gravity of cloud native and service mesh collaboration and innovation."

And Free Software Foundation Europe's EU public policy programme manager Alexander Sander told us: "Trademarks issues are becoming more and more relevant for Free Software. This development is mainly due to the fact that Free Software is increasingly and successfully used in the commercial sector. There are two challenges that need to be addressed.

"First: how can trademarks that appear in Free Software projects be used without legal concerns, and second: how can one contribute to Free Software without losing control over one's own trademarks?

"The new organisation Open Usage Commons approaches the first issue, at the beginning focusing in software initiated by Google. This will most likely lead to less paper work and more legal clarity for these specific projects.

"It is good to see that different organisations are trying different ways to handle this issue. There are also some differences between US and EU law in this area which will need to be worked out. We will closely monitor how the organisation will handle the trademark issue for these projects as well how they will act in the future." ®

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