Draft Debian trademark policy

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This is a draft of a Debian Trademark Policy. This is not an official or accepted policy or even a complete draft of one. It's a set of notes that explain the thinking of some interested parties on the issues involved.

The goal of the document is to explain the nature of trademark law to users and to create a policy that is "as free as possible" within the current limitations of trademark law and that simplifies, streamlines, explains, and documents common cases.

Since the desire of this policy is one shared by several other organizations, it can/should be rewritten to serve as a more generic trademark policy for organizations.

Overview of Trademark Law

Trademarks are names or symbols whose aim is to help consumers identify a particular good or service with a particular organization, group, or individual. They are the only form of "intellectual property" whose goal is to directly benefit the consumer. If a company gains a reputation for producing a very good -- or very bad -- product, it would be both unfair to the producer and confusing to consumers if other companies could label their own products identically.

If in the mind of consumers, a trademark stops referring to a particular producer, the trademark can be lost. Famous examples are linoleum and aspirin. The process is called genericide. It is wholly the responsibility of the mark holder to ensure that the name is not used to refer to products other than the ones which are from the same producer or which meet the same standards for quality.

Trademarks are limited to a particular field of endeavor.

Trademark law, like all law, is never as black and white or as binary as computer programs. Many cases will fall into a grey area and we can't foresee every situation. Questions in trademark law will always be very fact dependent and the facts aren't always clear. Calls will be human calls and will vary depending on the humans involved. This policy aims to help humans in deciding where decisions need to be made and to aid them in making those decision.

It will never be efficient for the project as a whole to participate in this type of decision.


"Debian" is a trademark owned by Software in the Public Interest, Inc. Debian is trademarked in order to keep Debian's users from being confused as to what is and is not Debian. There are several historical examples that illustrate the need for the Debian mark:

  • e.g., unofficial bad CDs
  • e.g., "Trusted Debian", "Debian Core Consortium", etc

The use of the Debian mark is limited to applications that involve computers and computer software. If someone were to begin selling servers under Debian name but unconnected to the Debian project and without permission from Software in the Public Interest, Inc., they would be infringing on the Debian mark. If someone were to begin selling toothpaste under the Debian mark, no infringement would have taken place. In this document, the capitalized DEBIAN refers to the mark rather than the project.

Goals of this Policy

The goal of this trademark policy falls into several broad areas:

  • To make the Debian trademark as free as possible, but to preserve enforceable trademark rights within Debian's field of use.
  • To get the Debian name used as much [and as creatively? --LuisVilla] as possible.
    • Debian's problem is not overuse of the Debian name but under-use. People should be able to and encouraged to refer to Debian wherever Debian is used or plays an important role. This policy should balance the desire to have the mark used by others while keeping the name within SPI and the Debian project's control.
  • To promote efficient decision making on trademark uses by:
    • Documenting the "clear cut" cases of when use of the Debian mark use will clearly be or will clearly not be appropriate in order to eliminate permission-asking from the most common cases;
    • Describing a set of guidelines for human decision-making on trademark uses for cases that are not "clear cut;"
    • Describing a set of processes, protocols and time-limits for human decision-making on cases that are not "clear cut;"

The goal is to help provide a framework for the users of the mark and for those making decisions within the Debian project and SPI, so that everyone can quickly and efficiently categorize trademark uses into the following types:

  • "Straight-forward" uses of the DEBIAN mark that do not require a trademark license;
  • "Straight-forward" uses of the DEBIAN mark that are prohibited and will not be licensed;
  • Uses of the DEBIAN mark that will require a trademark license;

What To Do If You Want To Use The Mark

Interpreting these guidelines is never a binary operation and there is always room for interpretation. Ultimately, it is the Debian Project Leader, his or her delegates, and the Board of directors of Software in the Public Interest, Inc,. whose interpretations matter most. If you are uncertain, please don't hesitate to ask.

  • Information on asking for permission.

You do not need a license if...

Not everybody needs to ask for permission to use the DEBIAN mark. Groups that can use the Debian mark without permission.

  • Anyone working within the Debian project or or sub-projects/etc as long as they are:
    • Using the mark to refer to work they have done in the capacity of a developer on the project;
    • .... keep filling this in.
      • The permission to use the trademark does not mean permission to start a company and call it Debian. If the Debian trademark committee or the DPL decides that a DD is using a mark in bad faith, the developer in question may be asked to stop.
    • Any use that falls under the banner of "fair use" of the mark which is similar to the concept under copyright. This includes:
      • Any descriptive use (insert legal terms here Greg)
      • Selling verbatim (exhaustion) CD vendors
      • etc

You need a license if...

Licensing is necessary any time anyone creates a company, product or set of services, certification program, or even a separate free software project that wants use the DEBIAN mark as part of its name.

Verbatim copies of ISOs will not require a license. However, if anyone will modify the ISOs before distributing them under the DEBIAN name, this would need to be reviewed.

All licensed uses should be monitored for quality, and can be terminated if use is contrary to Debian core principles. If someone deviates from our quality standards, we need to be able to take it back.


The criteria by which the DPL or his/her delegates evaluates any licensing claim will ultimately hinge on this:

  • Whether or not the it confuses the public on the source or origin of the goods or services.

Licensing Procedures

  • DPL makes decisions in clear cases.
  • If DPL is conflicted, delegates the decision to a committee of three disinterested Debian Developers.
  • licensing framework and decision-making processes

Disputes / Violations

The DPL is responsible to ensure the resolution of disputes.

What is a violation? How to tell.

If you think you really have a violation, this is what you should:

  • Email a (to be created) alias at trademarks@debian.org which will be forward to leader@debian.org , legal@spi-inc.org , spi-trademark@lists.spi-inc.org , and any listed delegates of the DPL.

You Cannot Use the License If....

  • You are referring to a private company that is involved in the production or promotion of non-free software disconnected to Debian.
  • etc.

Use Cases

use cases should be here