Open-source movements butt heads over logo

Open Source Initiative and Open Source Hardware Association trying to bridge differences over similar-looking logos

A gear logo proposed to represent and easily identify open-source hardware has caught the eyes of the The Open Source Initiative, which believes the logo infringes its trademark.

The gear logo is backed by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), which was formally established earlier this year to promote hardware innovation and unite the fragmented community of hackers and do-it-yourselfers. The gear mark is now being increasingly used on boards and circuits to indicate that the hardware is open-source and designs can be openly shared and modified.

OSI has now informed OSHWA, which is acting on behalf of the open-source hardware community, that the logo infringes on its trademark. The issue at stake is a keyhole at the bottom of the open-source hardware logo, which resembles a keyhole at the bottom of the OSI logo. The gear logo was created as part of the contest hosted by the group that founded OSHWA, and the mark was released by its designer under a Creative Commons license, opening it up for the community to use on hardware.

More than a year on, OSHWA is still in talks with OSI and both believe a resolution is near. The issue has sparked a debate on OSHWA's website, with some community members accusing OSI of policing and asking the open-source hardware organization to steer clear of OSI's licensing terms. OSI has established logo usage and trademark guidelines on its website.

OSHWA is also engaging the community on whether it should facilitate creation of a new logo or license the gear logo as a derivative work from OSI. OSHWA could theoretically argue OSI's claims in court, but it would be a waste of resources and create a wedge between open-source organizations, whose main objective is not to fight but to cooperate, wrote OSHWA president Alicia Gibb in the blog entry.

OSHWA follows the open-source ethos of working together to tweak, update and share physical hardware designs with the goal to improve products. The fledgling organization is still trying to sort out legal and licensing issues, and observers said this could be a litmus test for OSHWA's viability and the gear mark's use for hardware certification.

The gear logo has gained in popularity, and OSHWA director Nathan Seidle would love to see it stick around.

"We want to see the gear logo stamped onto bicycle parts, on the back of a wrist watch, on the bottom of a chair," said Seidle, who is also CEO of Colorado-based SparkFun Electronics, in an e-mail.

OSI, which is more grounded in software, tends to take a conservative approach to trademarks and legal discussions, which makes communication difficult, Seidle said. But OSHWA does not want trademark or legal battles with anyone, Seidle said.

"Because we have different values, it's difficult to communicate but I believe both sides are trying and doing a good job so far," Seidle said.

OSHWA initially approached OSI to ask about the relationship between the logos, and not vice versa, said Simon Phipps, president of OSI, emphasizing there was no schism between the open-source organizations.

"The discussions are ongoing and it's unhelpful to treat this as a conflict; neither OSI's board nor -- as far as I have been told -- OSHWA's board do," Phipps said in an e-mail.

OSI officials are keen to devise an approach that benefits the open-source community, while building bridges to strengthen it. OSI wants the gear mark to continue in some form without diluting the brand around the OSI mark.

The OSI-OSHWA discussions are important as trademarks are critical for consumer protection, said Michael Weinberg, staff attorney at Public Knowledge in Washington, DC.

The logo in question could lose value if it can be copied indiscriminately or put on non-open source hardware. Misuse of the gear logo could also undermine the public trust in OSHWA, and the legal issues need to be ironed out before the logo is used for things like hardware certification, Weinberg said. Other organizations could also come up with open-source hardware certification logos, which could create confusion among consumers.

"In a world where anyone can download the schematics and manufacture an Arduino board or a Makerbot replicator, it is helpful for consumers to know that their [board] or their replicator was actually assembled by Arduino or Makerbot. Trademarks are critical to being able to do that," Weinberg said in an e-mail.

The opinion was echoed by Jim Jagielski, director at OSI and co-founder of Apache Software Foundation, who said that the OSI mark is associated with software under the open source philosophy, as well as the rationale behind it.

"To ensure that the association is ... always made correctly, mark holders need to protect their marks to avoid consumer confusion," Jagielski said in an e-mail. "This applies with open source software and hardware as well."

OSI is willing to license the trademark, OSHWA's Gibb wrote in the blog entry. However, accepting such a license would establish OSI as the owner of the gear logo, which could put members at risk of litigation.

"It would make OSI responsible for deciding where and when the logo can be used, effectively giving OSI control of defining what can and cannot be labeled as open source hardware. It could also place OSHWA in the uncomfortable position of needing to enforce OSI trademarks," Gibb wrote.

Dave Vandenbout, who runs X Engineering Software Systems in North Carolina, was putting the gear mark on open-source boards, but is suspending that until the issue is sorted out. The gear logo told people that the board is open-source and they can build upon it if they wish.

"If it is found that the Gear logo infringes OSI's trademark, then I suppose I could receive a cease-and-desist letter. That might be pretty disastrous for me if I had to actually scrap my inventory," Vandenbout said.

But if open-source hardware would require a licensing agreement with OSI, most of the community will want another logo, Vandenbout said.

"I wouldn't mind switching to another mark. It's not a big deal to change until actual hardware has been constructed," Vandenbout said.

OSHWA should just free itself from OSI, said Alexander Chemeris, CEO of Fairwaves LLC in Russia. OSI should issue a release for the gear logo, and allow the open-source hardware organization to use the logo under its own rules.

"I prefer to see these organizations independent." Chemeris said. "I don't want OSI troubles ... to anyhow touch open-source hardware."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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