This article is more than 1 year old

If you don't get open source's trademark culture, expect bad language

Rust never sleeps. Sometimes it dozes at the wheel

Opinion It's a classic story. An outfit, in this case the Rust Foundation, decides to change some rules, in this case the acceptable use of trademarks. The outfit's best friends, in this case the Rust community, takes umbrage and the outfit backs down. 

If you want to know how often this type of thing happens, search The Register for backlash, U-turn, backs down and reverses. In this Rust case, there are big clues to why this sort of thing happens and, more interestingly, how to avoid it.

The rusty hinge is the nature of trademarks. Designed to protect commercial brands, trademarks are legal devices that only work if their owners actively protect them. You must not use Biro or Hoover for ballpoint pen or vacuum cleaner, say the half-stern, half-pleading letters to editors from PR or legal departments. Seeing the Rust name and logo as valuable brand assets, the Foundation wanted community members not to use them in package names and the like. 

This is silly in three important ways. Firstly. trademarks don't work that way in open source; you have a governing body which sets standards and blesses code, not a commercial marketing department, and this is how users know what's pukka. Second, the norm for languages is to let users use the language name as they like. Harm here is rare; those who disagree can fork off, as indeed some Rust users did with the Crab protest fork. Lastly, the silliest idea of the lot is that you can just expect a community to change its behavior because you tell it to, especially when it seems pointless and irksome and you haven't explained why it's needed. Have these people never seen an angry open source community before? They have now. 

Unpopular decisions aren't always bad decisions, but they are risky and cumulative. They can reflect internal changes in strategy, a reaction to changing environment, or bloody-minded power politics between rival cliques. If you're big enough, you can impose them on your constituency, as Microsoft is wont to do when it continually mistakes its operating system for an ad platform. Open source is rarely big enough – see Ubuntu's thrashing around with desktop UIs

Sheesh, what are they like? No really: what are they like?

Open source does have one big advantage, and it's the same thing the Rust Foundation just stubbed its toe on. Culture. The Foundation almost gets it when it admits it wasn't transparent enough when preparing the changes, but then doesn't get it at all when it asks people to send in private feedback on Google forms. The culture can go feral, but it can also use the same energy to test ideas early on, frankly and creatively, if the ideas are good ones. 

What open source can do that proprietary organizations find much harder is to work with outside people early and freely. Advisory committees and discussion groups are nothing new, but they only go so far. If you think of strategy and planning as processes like code design and management, then bringing in users at all stages, in invite-only closed groups if you like, makes sense. The legal implications of doing this in the closed world are horrific and would be NDA'd to the wazoo. You might bring in the consultants, but do you really want that culture? 

In the case of the Rust trademarks, instead of the Foundation landing a proposal that is at best poorly explained and at worst just a bad idea, only to be shocked when devland riots, try this on for size. The Foundation says publicly that it's working through some new ideas for the best use of its trademarks, and invites a limited number of volunteers to become part of a closed alpha. No NDAs, just a code of conduct for continued membership.

Foundation staff explain what the problems are needing to be fixed and run through some options. The volunteers can react and suggest. The benefits of privacy are that misunderstandings can be worked out without dogpiles, people on all sides can be more open, and tripwire concepts can be found and defused before they go off in public.

It's no crime in open source to do initial idea development in small groups out of the public gaze. Nor to ask for others to join in a design discussion as you see fit. That should be true for all aspects of any organisation that supplies and depends on open source communities. This is a very different culture to commercial entities, and it's very dangerous to think like one when you're the other.

In the words of Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast. It is to open source's great advantage that it can align its organizational cultures to those of its communities far more easily than can shareholder-bidden corporations. When strategies and cultures are in tune, then real magic can happen – and when they don't, things get seriously Rusty. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like