While perusing the usual alleyways of the Internet the other day, I was fairly surprised to see this article on OSNews. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the situation, let me indulge you.
Quite some time ago, Lindows were gridlocked in battle with Microsoft over an issue regarding their trade name, Lindows. The issue at hand was that ‘Lindows’ and ‘Windows’ sounded a little too close for comfort for the Redmond behemoth. The trademark infringement issue was ultimately resolved between the two warring parties, and Lindows changed their name and product branding to the less litigious ‘Linspire’. The company then spent time doing what they do best - trying to create a word class desktop Operating System.
The core product that Linspire offer is not free. Like many other distributors, Linspire have cobbled together their product from a combination of free and non-free components. Although the distribution is based around free software, that software is delivered with a proprietary tool (Click n’ Run), and many other non-free elements such as codecs, fonts and other software is included. These non-free elements are licensed by Linspire for their inclusion in the product. As such, Linspire cannot be copied as freely as a distribution such as Ubuntu or Debian, due to these non-free components.
Recently a chap named Andrew Betts decided to take the non-free elements out of Linspire and release the free parts as another Linspire-derived distribution called Freespire. This act of re-releasing distributions or code is certainly nothing new and is fully within the ethos of Open Source. In fact, many of the distributions we use today were derived from existing tools. Unfortunately, Linspire saw this as a problem and asked for the Freespire name to be changed.
There are a number of things wrong with this picture. The first and most telling issue is the sheer hypocrisy of the request coming from Linspire of all people. Back when Lindows was their trading name, I felt rather uncomfortable with them using a name that was so similar to Windows. The approach seemed to smack of a cheap shot at getting Windows users on board, and the software seemed a rather cheap attempt at capitalising on bringing these users over. Although Lindows held up a good fight against Microsoft, and irrespective of the rights and wrongs of choosing a normal word (Windows) as a trademark, ‘Lindows’ was only one single, solitary letter away from ‘Windows’. Aside from the lexical issue, it seemed that the Lindows Operating System was also quite obviously targeted towards existing Windows users. To me it seems that a competing software product that looks to be targeted at Windows users in conjunction with a trademark that is only one letter away from the competitor’s product name could certainly cause confusion. Sure, it is not going to cause confusion with anyone vaguely versed in modern IT, but their target audience are largely consisted of people who are not versed in IT. With this recent incident, it seems as though the line is ‘well its OK for us to do it to Microsoft, but its not OK for someone to do it to us’. Hypocrisy defined.
Solving the problem
After Betts was asked to change the name, a page appeared at http://freespire.jasp.com/ with some text outlining the issue. It is likely that the page will be removed at some point in the future, so here it is for completeness:
The freespire project is changing its name, as it is creating confusion and misunderstanding. The project will now be assuming the name ’squiggle’
“freespire” was the term I gave to a private project I had been working on. The project was comprised of various open source components, taken from the freely available source repository for the Linspire operating system. Somehow my project got submitted to distrowatch.com as a bona-fide Linux distribution. I can only assume whoever did this had good intentions, unfortunately it was done without my consent.
Subsequent widespread distribution of this project has led to much misunderstanding, based largely on the name. So to make it clear:
This project is not a free version of the Linspire operating system and is not made by Linspire Inc..
Some examples of the problems caused by the term ‘freespire’:
- It confused some into thinking that if you just take out the proprietary licensed pieces of Linspire, you still have Linspire. This impression is false because the total Linspire experience relies on proprietary components, such as mp3, Java, Flash, Quick Time, Windows Media, Real, fonts, etc…
- I worried that many people would try ‘freespire’ and use this to judge the Linspire product. I have already read posts on the net that go something like this, “I have never tried Linspire because I didn’t want to pay, so I was excited to finally try it when I saw Freespire. I downloaded it, and I wasn’t impressed. I don’t see what all the big deal is around Linspire. I didn’t see anything very special there.”
- I had heard from Linspire that their support department was getting calls and emails from users who thought Freespire was their product. As much as I tried to put disclaimers in to the contrary, some still were confused to this point. I’d even seen reviews for my project that said Linspire was the creator.
Linspire has expressed complete support to me with the project itself, as long as it didn’t infringe on any 3rd-party licensing. But the name has caused problems for both parties so I decided to change it.
To help alleviate any confusion, I contacted Linspire and they made an extremely generous offer to us all. They want everyone who has been following my project to experience “the real” Linspire, FOR FREE!!! For a limited time, they are making available a coupon code called “FREESPIRE” that will give you a free digital copy of Linspire! Please visit http://linspire.com/freespire for details.
For those of you that are still interested in my project please visit the LinspireNetwork (after getting your FREE copy of Linspire I hope!)
Many thanks for you time, and don’t forget to enjoy Linux
Reading through this page, the language and flow of the words screams marketing to me. I am certainly not insinuating that Betts has been forced into writing this page, or that the Linspire marketing drones have written it and appended his name, but it certainly doesn’t sound quite right to me. I would have expected something along the lines of ‘Freespire has been changed to Squiggle to avoid confusion with the Linspire product’, but this is not the case. Instead we are treated to choice marketing cuts such as ‘To help alleviate any confusion, I contacted Linspire and they made an extremely generous offer to us all’. Wow. What is this one-chance-in-a-lifetime-not-sold-in-stores offer? Luckily, he continues, ‘they want everyone who has been following my project to experience “the real” Linspire, FOR FREE!!!’. Now, pray tell, how do we get this ‘real’ version of the software ‘FOR FREE!!!’? ‘For a limited time, they are making available a coupon code called “FREESPIRE” that will give you a free digital copy of Linspire! Please visit http://linspire.com/freespire for details’. Oh…thanks.
I am sorry to say but I find throwing free as in beer copies of Linspire out as the solution to the problem, or as a means to push attention away from the issue as a cheap shot at solving the problem and to capitalise on the attention to shift more copies of Linspire. The fundamental issue is that the right to create a product and call what you like is being stamped on by an organisation that fought in a court of law to essentially do the same thing. Throwing free copies at the problem does not solve it, and I feel it instead comes across as a rather cheap shot to maintain the status quo.
Drawing a conclusion
This entire issue is hinged around the concept of ‘confusion’. Is there likely to be more or less confusion between ‘Lindows’ and ‘Windows’ or ‘Linspire’ and ‘Freespire’? I am not sufficient convinced that a newcomer to IT is going to be any less confused with either side of the fence. I don’t doubt that confusion can occur in both cases, and both Microsoft and Linspire need to protect their interests, but I just find the fuss kicked off by Linspire over Freespire as disappointing given their history.
I know Kevin Carmony from Linspire reasonably well and have an enormous amount of respect for him. Kevin is committed to not only getting Linux on more desktops, but to also improve the image and public confidence in his organisation. Having spoke to Kevin about some of the methods that could improve these relations, I am confident that he is working hard to better communicate how the ideals of Linspire and the ideals of Open Source are aligned. Unfortunately, this incident has knocked my own confidence in Linspire, and I hope that reparations can be made in a way that does not just include throwing out free copies.
So, what do you think? A real problem or a storm in a teacup?