Groupon and GNOME: A legal war that almost happened

Groupon was about to undergo some dirty business by trademarking the name GNOME for a new POS system. Eventually, it backed down -- but is this a sign of things to come? Jack Wallen reacts.

GNOME and Groupon

In a very strange turn of events -- one that dumbfounded me on every level -- Groupon (that multi-billion dollar coupon company) has decided to create a tablet. The name of that tablet? Well, it was going to be GNOME.

Look familiar? It should. GNOME has been a staple of the Linux desktop since March of 1999, and it's been trademarked since 2006. But when the GNOME Foundation approached Groupon about the trademark, Groupon did was most huge companies do -- they filed for their own trademarks.

So much for logic.

Of course, Groupon did this knowing full well that GNOME is a non-profit organization and doesn't have the funds to go up against a company with $2.5 billion dollars in annual revenue and its own legal team.

All Groupon had to do was choose another name for this tablet -- a device that could be placed next to retail registered to save consumer shopping preferences and handle Point of Sale (POS) transactions. And because they assumed this was a legal battle that they had no chance of losing, they decided to toss aside the fact that GNOME was trademarked.

In reaction to this, the GNOME Foundation has had to reach out its hands to beg the community in an effort to raise the necessary funds to fight this -- funds that could be going to much more important uses (like paying developers, marketing, or server space). In fact, they need roughly $80,000 dollars to go up against Groupon to defend their trademark.

Or so they would have. Fortunately, the open-source community responded... and Groupon responded by pulling the name. Actually, they didn't just pull the name, they made sure everyone knew they were fans of open source and even sourced plenty of their work to GitHub.

So, they are friends of open source.

Coincidentally, conversations between Groupon and the GNOME Foundation had been going on behind closed doors for months. When no agreement could be reached, Groupon seemed as if they were going to go ahead with filing the trademark and "steal" the name GNOME.

Know your friends... as one might say.

But then, in typical open-source fashion, the community reacted. Emails, canceling of Groupon accounts, tweets -- anything they could to support the GNOME Foundation and a name that has long been synonymous with Linux.

Within a span of 24 hours, it succeeded. Groupon backed down and the GNOME name is safe. $80,000 and drawn out court battles will not be necessary. Huzzah!

This is, however, a reminder of how typically open source and small companies are treated by big business, and it's a behavior that needs to cease. Just because you have the funds to press on with a case for a trademark, doesn't mean you should. But that's not how Groupon felt. They filed for 10 trademarks, including one for the name GNOME, and looked ready to pounce.

The assumption is clear -- the corporate world assumes FLOSS trademarks are not so much open source, but open season. You want it, you've got the money, so take it. If your company's value is high enough, you could pretty much take on any trademark and win. Major corporations assume the practice of running over the small guy is just part of the capitalist ecosystem, and this move by Groupon would have perfectly illustrated this.

How can we, as a collective group of open-source professionals and enthusiasts, prevent other big companies from doing the same? Once upon a time, open source had an angel called Groklaw looking over its shoulder. However, that no longer exists. Now, it sometimes feels like open source has to looking over its own shoulder for predatory behavior.

In light of something that ultimately didn't happen, how can open source protect itself from having to go to court to fight over something it shouldn't have to fight? Let us know your thoughts and suggestions in the discussion thread below.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....