For my OSS project, is it a good idea to release the "brand assets" under a CC license?

I want to make it easy for people to use the logo for blogs/articles talking about the product and derivatives for forks of the project, but I also want to keep some restriction on it so it doesn't look like the official project is endorsing another branch/unofficial forum/paid service/etc. is clearly not associated with the project.

It seems as trademark with usage guidelines would be the best, but it's unrealistic to trademark a name for a project that I cannot guarantee success. I could, in theory, keep the copyright and license it under another license (any recommendations?) that allows the uses specified above. Is this a good idea?

I technically did derive the logo from a CC0 public domain image, but it has very little resemblance (it's a common icon, but the trademark "identity" is in the exact colors and shapes). I changed the shape, orientation, colors, and outlines; I think it's unique enough for copyright protection.


This question is probably off-topic because it's really not about copyright, let alone open source. However, the reason why deserves an explanation.

First, a quick primer: copyright and trademarks are different types of IP. Copyright protects creative works, and trademarks protect brand identities. Logos, being simple and recognisable, can sometimes be so simple that they cannot be copyrighted, but this has no bearing on whether it is trademarkable, which is determined by other facts - like whether it's a generic term.

If you decide to trademark your logo, it's best that you do this with a trademark lawyer, and possibly create a trademark usage policy, if you want others to use your trademarks. OSI for example lets other people use their logos if they meet their usage guidelines. If you read that document though, it would seem much more restrictive than typical open source licenses. This is because copyright is different to trademarks. A "free/open trademark license" is an oxymoron, since trademarks intend to protect identity, and not enforcing trademarks will often lead to them being declared invalid. It's this "use it or lose it" property that leads to open source projects like Mozilla to restrictively protect their trademarks, leading to products like Iceweasel.

Typical trademark licenses are quite specific; they usually specify a licensee and the types of activities allowed under the license. For example, LEGO licenses Star Wars trademarks from Lucasfilm in order to sell specific product lines meeting Lucasfilm's requirements (and nothing else).

So for now, I don't feel there's any need to do anything about your trademarks. You only need to take specific action if:

  • You are large and engage in a lot of commercial activity, and therefore need to protect your brand identity
  • You have specific licensees in mind
  • You are an organisation like OSI or GNU, who would like their logos used by many third parties

Nevertheless, if you use an open (copyright) license for your logo, it lets other people freely derive the logo, as long as it doesn't end up too similar to your own.

  • Nice explanation. However, assuming that a logo is copyrightable, wouldn't a restrictive license on the logo itself allow one to use copyright law to have the same brand protection that one would otherwise get from a trademark, e.g. preventing people from using the logo in ways that go against the usage guidelines? The significant effort required to get a trademark in the US (let alone internationally) makes it less attractive for smaller organizations. – Quantum7 Nov 14 '16 at 15:54

I'm no lawyer, and don't even play one on TV. That said...

The license on the logo as an image is one thing (e.g., do you allow others to take it and modify it for some other uses), and the use of said logo as a symbol for your project are two different things in my (ignorant) opinion. Clarify what you want in both lines.

Check similar cases, e.g the logos of GNU, Red Hat, Apache, Linux or other high-visibility projects. That should give a fair idea.

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