MeeGo Says Smeegol Brand is No Go

Linux Foundation requests interface project change name to avoid trademark dilution

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I am not a lawyer.

I never wanted to be a lawyer; I wanted to be a fireman. All I know about lawyering is from over a decade of watching Law and Order or my friends who are lawyers or law students.

Also, I am not an employee of the Linux Foundation, but I used to be. I very occasionally write pieces for them for Linux.com, because as a freelance writer, that's one way I earn the bread. I also work for a lot of other publications and organizations.

So take these disclaimers to mind when I wade through this topic: the small but important conflict over the name of openSUSE's netbook interface for MeeGo: Smeegol.

Smeegol 1.0 was announced on Oct. 6, just nine days ago on the openSUSE Announce mailing list. Andy Wafaa outlined what appear to be some nice add-ons to the basic MeeGo interface.

Apparently, unbeknownst to anyone outside the project, Wafaa sent a note back on September 20 to the MeeGo-dev mailing list seeking clarification on the copyright rules for MeeGo. When the project was under the Moblin banner, before Moblin sponsor Intel joined forces with Nokia to form the combined MeeGo operating system project, the rules about copyright usage were apparently more clear, so Wafaa tried to track down what the rules were that governed MeeGo's trademark.

Here's where things get tricky.

It seems that Wafaa's inquiry finally got a reply this past Wednesday from Dr. Ibrahim Haddad on the MeeGo-dev list, which politely informed Waafa that:

"In order to maintain the MeeGo mark, the Linux Foundation must consistently control the use of any form of the word MeeGo and the related logos and characters to avoid confusion.

"Unfortunately, from a trademark law perspective, the proposed usage above is absolutely not recommended, as such usage will weaken the MeeGo mark and make it less enforceable."

Now, some important things: Haddad is the Linux Foundation's new Director of Technical Alliances, and currently manages the LF's Mobile Linux initiatives, which definitely covers MeeGo, which is currently stewarded by the Foundation. So clearly he has the authority to inform the Smeegol team of this development. This was a bit of news for me, since I thought Haddad was still the Director of Open Source at Palm.

This, of course, neither here or there. What is important here is that several members of the Smeegol team are less than thrilled with this information. Haddad noted that his reply had come rather late (a full week after the Smeegol 1.0 announcement), and did indicate that the MeeGo team would be willing to assist the Smeegol team figure out a new name.

Some Smeegol team members, however, were having none of it--in particular Novell's Greg Kroah-Hartman, who has been one of the most vocal with his objections.

(I know, no surprise there.)

But Kroah-Hartman raises some interesting points. First, it is unclear just what it is about the Smeegol name that would be harmful to the MeeGo trademark. Sure, it's a clever (or painful) play on the name Sméagol, the ring-possessed Hobbit from the Lord of the Rings. I personally rolled my eyes when I heard it for the first time, but I am notorious for my dislike of puns and I didn't really think it a harmful dilution of MeeGo.

Kroah-Hartman is also not happy with the timing of the reply from Haddad, and I don't think anyone on either side disagrees that it was a bit of bad form. Nor is Kroah-Hartman very willing to recognize the request from the LF, preferring instead to wait for an actual cease-and-desist order.

These two points, I believe, are the weakest parts of Kroah-Hartman's argument, since the timing doesn't matter. Ultimately, from a legal standpoint, it doesn't really matter when MeeGo and the Linux Foundation makes their objections known. As for ignoring what has thus far been a polite request in favor of a court order seems a bit silly--Haddad clearly would prefer to keep this a polite discussion and not open this exchange with all legal guns blazing.

That said, here's what I don't get: MeeGo, for all its coolness, is still very, very young. There are still doubts as to when, or if, a viable MeeGo product will hit the market, especially in the face of an exploding Android platform. Why turn to one of the staunchest (to date) pro-MeeGo projects and smack them around like this? This is, I believe, Kroah-Hartman's strongest point, and it may need an answer.

It is the LF's job to enforce the trademarks of its projects, as well as that of Linux itself. So their enforcement policy has precedent. Interestingly, the Foundation leadership itself seems very willing to let this situation resolve itself on its own.

"Open collaboration is the foundation on which the best software is built. It's this collaboration in vibrant communities like MeeGo that results in healthy, and sometimes contentious, public debate on everything from technical requirements to trademarks," Amanda McPherson, VP of marketing and developer programs, replied when I asked the LF for comment. "We find this healthy debate taking place in all of our hosted workgroups and defer to these communities to make project decisions."

That's a healthy step, because conflicts like these do not need to escalate right to the courts. While each side has some valid points, in the land of grown ups some differences can be settled without lawyers. Hopefully each team will keep that in mind as this discussion continues.

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