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Trademarks, brands and Asterisk

The team at Digium had a bit of a rocky ride this week over their latest effort to protect the Asterisk trademark.  They had submitted a list of organizations authorized to use the Asterisk trademark to Google, and asked Google to restrict advertisements using the term Asterisk to those licensees.  It provoked an uproar in the Asterisk community, as the majority of Asterisk advertising suddenly disappeared from Google.  Then the company did a remarkable thing.  A day later they had evaluated the situation, and relaxed their position.  CEO Danny Windham posted a letter to the Digium community admitting the error, followed by an FAQ that answers many of the common questions that people had about this policy.  In short order, the critics backed off and lauded this new move.  

Navigating the waters of trademarks in todays world can be a tricky proposition. Witness Hasbro's ham-handed handling of the Scrabulous situation on Facebook this week.  In the world before social media, trademark infringers would be dealt with summarily. The law is clear on the rights of the trademark holder. When infringers were found, lawyers would send a cease-and-desist letter, and follow up with legal action if necessary.  That was the 1950's world of picket fences, soap jingles, and bee-hive hairdos.  It was the world where a corporations trademarks and brands were synonymous. 

Social media has emerged as a dominant element of virtually all marketing today. Customers and advocates self identify and become part of the brand rather than simply being the recipient of the corporations marketing message. The brand is shaped by those users and effectively become "co-owned" by the customers and the corporation.  That's where the trouble starts, beginning with the tension in the organization between the sales and marketing function (which actively wants to create a social brand) and the legal function (which wants to protect the corporations' trademark which is intellectual property).  In today's world a trademark is a legally recognized piece of intellectual property that represents a brand, but it is not the brand itself.  

Digium's Danny Windham has shown a masterful understanding of this in his actions.  He has acknowledged that while Digium is the Asterisk trademark owner, the Asterisk brand is larger than Digium.  That brand was the creation of Digium, but it is now shared by the community of users and Digium together.   Moreover, while Digium's actions appeared high handed to many, Windham goes on to explain that protecting that trademark is good for everyone in the community, not just Digium. 

On the part of Digium and the Asterisk community and ecosystem, there’s value in ensuring that the trademarked terms are used in a legal, consistent, and ethical fashion. While it is important for Digium to protect its trademarks, we now better understand just how significant an impact changes in this area can have and just how important it is for any proposed changes to be judiciously derived and methodically implemented.

In relaxing the trademark usage rules and explaining the value of a consistent trademark to the Asterisk community, Danny has demonstrated respect and leadership, and a real understanding of the role that Digium has as steward of the Asterisk brand.  

Nicely done.  

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Moshe Maeir January 20, 2008, 8:50 am

    Alec,
    I have one comment on your comprehensive summary. Asterisk is both a commercial product and a open source project which complicates the situation even more. Not only do you have customers, resellers, suppliers and employees to consider, you also have a very vocal community of open source Asterisk developers and users.

    Time will tell if Digium will succeed in maintaining a productive relationship with many constituents. It won't be easy, I hope they will try!

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