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

Marks for Angular and Gerrit also handled by org designed to provide 'guidance' to industry

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Google has set up an organization dubbed the Open Usage Commons to manage three open-source projects' trademarks – and provide developers advice on handling and using brands.

The ads'n'search giant said today: "One 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 look after for starters: those of Angular (a Typescript web framework), Gerrit (a code-collaboration tool) and Istio (a service mesh for Kubernetes). All three of these projects are closely associated with Google.

No code or stewardship of code is being transferred to the OUC. Instead, the org has been tasked with handling the projects' trademarks, and advising others on how to look after their brands.

Chris DiBona, director of Open Source at Google and Alphabet, said the OUC 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, provide assistance with conformance testing and establishing usage guidelines, and tackle “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 are being handled by the newly founded OUC.

"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.”

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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." ®

Bootnote

We note Google applied to register the trademark Istio in the US in 2018, though it doesn't formally own, nor has seemingly sought to officially own, Angular nor Gerrit, which have their origins entwined with Google. Bear in mind, you can still own a trademark without registering it, in America at least.

Another facet to all of this is the Linux Foundation weighing in this evening, taking aim at Google's structuring of the trademark and source code management of Istio et al: "Under US trademark law you are not able to effectively separate ownership of a project mark from control of the underlying open source project."

We'll try to clear all of this up with Google this week.

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