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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Python Trademark Filer Ignorant Of Python?

How could the company trying to file a trademark for "Python" have been unaware of the open source programming language?

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English: Python logo Deutsch: Python Logo

English: Python logo Deutsch: Python Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bat-Signal - or probably a snake-signal - hit the clouds last Friday, when the Python community appealed for help with challenging a trademark application. As Glyn explained in more detail, the Python Software Foundation (PSF) - a non-profit supporting the venerable Python programming language - says it faces a serious challenge to use of the name "Python" in Europe because a UK hosting company has applied for a Europe-wide trademark that incorporates the word Python.

I immediately decided to try to hear both sides of the story.  I called POBox Hosting Ltd, the company that is trying to establish a new cloud hosting service named Python. While their CEO Tim Poultney was too busy to speak to me Friday, it became clear that their marketing staff were bemused by the attention they were getting - I spoke to them many times waiting for Tim. He finally called me late Monday, to defend the actions of his company.

Tim clearly explained he regarded POBox as the victim in all this, threatened by an unresponsive US corporation trying to get his family business to give away a treasured brand name he had been using for 17 years.  He was outraged that his web hosting company web sites had been DDoSed (at the time of writing I was getting 504 and 404 errors from his company's web sites), and he explained he'd deleted the Twitter and Facebook presence to avoid the hostile comments he was receiving. He expressed anger at being targeted and blamed the PSF for intentionally causing the attack with their blog posting

That "trading for 17 years" claim deserved investigation, so I took a look on Archive.org. His company bought the python.co.uk domain in 1997, and did offer "Python Internet Services" in 1997 and again briefly in 2004 (trading as "CheapNet" in between). After 2004, the domain just redirected to Pobox.co.uk (although Tim told me customers could request a "@python.co.uk" e-mail address). So while the company may once have had products with the name, their new cloud service, launched at the start of 2012, seems to have been a new departure.

The "big American corporation" claim bears investigation too. While POBox Hosting Ltd is a small business, the Python Software Foundation -- although representing the interests of millions of developers worldwide -- is even smaller. Chairman Van Lindberg told me "the PSF is a very small nonprofit. We have one full-time staff administrator and a part-time accountant. All the rest of us are unpaid - we have regular jobs that we do each day and we donate our time to the PSF."

Van explained to me that while the PSF hadn't liked it, they'd tolerated use of the python.co.uk domain for e-mail hosting, considering that the fact the domain just redirected to Veber and POBox web sites was unfortunate but unlikely to mislead the public. But when at the start of 2012 the PSF heard that POBox intended to launch a product called "Python Cloud" they were alarmed, since Python is widely used in this area. The new product posed a real risk of confusing the public, so the PSF wrote to POBox in January 2012 asking them not to do this and pointing out the PSF registered US trademark.

Instead of recognising the potential for confusion and picking another name for their new cloud hosting product when the PSF pointed out the problem, POBox chose to argue the legal details of the trademark registration and then, in April 2012, tried to counter the PSF objections by filing a europe-wide trademark registration for a graphic prominently featuring the word "Python" in all the trademark classes one might expect to see Python software protected. 

While POBox and the PSF had corresponded prior to the trademark filing, Tim told me that the PSF had not responded to invitations to discuss the filing afterwards. Van explained POBox had made an offer to remove "software" from the scope of the filing. This would have left a restriction on Python for all servers and web services - something unacceptable to the PSF and its members - so they chose to maintain opposition.

Tim claimed he had been unaware until Friday of the importance of Python to the open source community. That seems a remarkable claim. POBox use Debian for their web sites, they face major competition from sites that use Python (such as Google AppEngine) and they offer Linux hosting. Further, the PSF had corresponded with them in January 2012. 

How is it even possible they could be unaware of the importance of the name "Python" to the open source community from whose goodwill and software they profit? Tim confirmed that he'd not involved any technical staff in the decisions he'd made about the Python product brand, and told me he regretted that as it would probably have helped him understand the likely reaction to his trademark challenge.

POBox is clearly reeling from the attention of the global open source community, which has made their Python Hosting product unusable. The PSF was clear with me that they had no intention of causing this, and they did not want anyone to take any action other than providing them with evidence to use objecting to the trademark filing. DDoS bullying solves nothing and is indefensible, and the PSF agrees.

Tim told me he regretted the position he now found himself in and the offence his company had caused the Python community. He said he now understood how offended the global developer community are and told me there was obviously only one outcome that was now possible.  Let's hope POBox realises that Python is not in fact a hostile corporation and faces up to its community responsibilities soon.


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