"Business Ethics" in the Open Source Community?

Kurt Granroth and Andreas Pour

Update Feb 13:After a series of amicable discussions between the authors and Ximian, Ximian has announced that it will revise its Google advertisements to eliminate the possibility of confusion and will refrain from any further KDE-keyword-related ad campaigns once the current campaign expires. We're glad that Ximian has taken this step and even more glad that this issue is resolved.

This page will stay up for the time being as a historical note.

Now back to coding! :-)

What do we do when "one of our own" turns their back on our community's code of ethics?

I remember a time when it was all about the code. We worked on free software projects (the term "Open Source" came later) in our spare time, caring little about "marketing" and even less about other business concerns. Many of us were fleeing from the "win at any cost" tactics of the proprietary software world and enjoyed the strong sense of integrity and ethics that came along with the free software community.

But times inevitably change. With the influx of corporate money, lawyers, marketing directors and other suits to our once pet projects, we have to think about things like market share in addition to thinking about the code. So be it.

A few "get rich quick" companies hoping to capitalize on "the Linux craze" have tried to apply the old tactics to this community.. but for the most part, they have had little effect. We tend to watch out for these companies and let them know that they aren't welcome in our community if they can't play by our rules. This is usually pretty effective.

But what do we do when one of our own, a company with long-time roots in our community, rejects our code of ethics and resorts to underhanded, deceitful tactics for the express purpose of undermining an Open Source project? I never expected this to happen. Much to my dismay, it appears that the now flush-with-cash IGS/Helix Code/Ximian company is doing just that.

...what do we do when one of our own rejects our code of ethics..
The intent of these ads are clear.. confuse people searching for free KDE code into buying Ximian products instead
An Experiment
Go to the popular Google search engine and try a search on any of the following terms: "KDE", "K Desktop Environment", "koffice", "kword", "kspread", "konqueror", "dcop", "kparts", "qt" or "trolltech". Now look at the "Sponsored Link" on the right side of the page. You will find the ad shown below, loudly proclaiming "Free Linux Desktop" and advertising "Download it now!". The link goes to -- not KDE, but Ximian. Huh?

KDE keyword
Ximian ad for KDE keywords

The fact that Ximian ads appear in response to a KDE query is not random! The Google "AdWords" program is keyword, not concept, based. It allows advertisers to choose any number of keywords that will trigger their ad. Ximian deliberately chose all of the major KDE keywords they apparently could think of. In effect, Google sold the KDE, Qt, Trolltech and other trademarks to Ximian; and, sadly, Ximian bought them with their new war-chest-filled-with-venture-capital-funds ethics.

The intent of these ads are clear: they are deliberately attempting to confuse people looking for free KDE code into buying Ximian products instead. Think I'm reading too much into this? Well, look again at the ad above and then look at the ad below. This is what Google produces when one searches for "ximian", "gnome", or "evolution"

GNOME keyword
Ximian ad for Gnome keywords
Capitalizing on Confusion
Yes, the Gnome-keyword ad prominently displays "GNOME" in its banner; but the KDE ad prominently displays "Free Linux Desktop" (a phrase, incidentally, which appears nowhere on their website). One could try to write this off as coincidental, but that conclusion is subverted by the fact that each of the KDE/Qt-related keywords comes up with the "Free Linux Desktop" ads, and each of the Gnome-related keywords comes up with the "Ximian GNOME" ads.

Why would the KDE-related-keyword ads not even mention Gnome, when that word is displayed so prominently in the Gnome-related-keyword ads? The only plausible explanation is that this is so by design!

If you still doubt the purpose of these ads, then please read this email correspondence between the Ximian webmaster and a KDE developer. According to the webmaster (follow the previous link for the exact words), Ximian wants to confuse people who have heard of KDE and its excellent reputation but don't know all the details about it. When they do a search for KDE and the Ximian link comes up, they hope to capitalize on the confusion and redirect these users to their site. After all, KDE is a "Free Linux Desktop" and the ad says that that is where you can get it! Once at the site, Ximian -- which must answer to their venture capital fund owners -- obviously hopes to sell that person their products.

Still not enough for you? We could write this off as just no-holds-barred competition, after all... Well, except for two points: First, a search on the same Google site for "sawmill", "enlightenment", "windowmaker" and "afterstep" did not yield a Ximian ad. Most telling of all, a search for "eazel" and "nautilus" -- by all appearances Ximian's most direct business competitors -- did not yield a Ximian ad. What does this tell us about Ximian's motives? Is it merely to compete, or are they trying to harm KDE in particular?

Why would these ads not even mention Gnome... if not to deceive users?
[Has] "settling it with code" been replaced by... "we'll see you in court?"
See You In Court?
The second problem is the obvious trademark one. The purpose of trademark law is to protect consumers from confusion -- to prevent one company from using the good name of another to confuse a consumer into buying their product. After all, since the person searching for KDE has probably not heard of Ximian, they might not know that Ximian peddles only Gnome. In any case, it has already been established that it is a trademark violation to embed another person's trademarks in one's META tags in order to lure people to one's website, particularly when the posing website is commercial in nature. In my judgment, Ximian purchasing KDE's name from Google, and their placement of deliberately confusing ads next to KDE search results, is a far more egregious violation of KDE's good name, and the intent to deceive users even more blatant, than has traditionally been present in the META tag abuses.

Tactics like this are considered "legal risks" in the cut-throat proprietary business world. They almost always result in lawsuits due to trademark infringement. Is that what what the open source community has devolved into? Has the old fraternity based on integrity, pride and "settling it with code" been replaced by greed, deception and "we'll see you in court"?

Doing "The Right Thing"
I can only hope that it has not yet, and never will, come to that. In all likelihood this ill-conceived marketing program was the decision of an ethically-challenged (or clueless) marketing director within Ximian and was not the intent of the company itself -- or, more importantly, its developers. Now that it has drawn it to their attention, I expect that Ximian will do the right thing and pull all advertising from Google linked to the names of KDE, Trolltech or any of their respective products or programs. And if Ximian refuses to do so, I hope the Ximian developers will show that they still believe in the ethics of our community, and vote for integrity with their feet.

I wanted to clarify one thing: this open letter is specifically about the company Ximian's unethical behavior. This has nothing to do with the Gnome Project itself. We have certainly had our issues with the Gnome Project in the past, but we've always worked everything out by working within the community's "rules of behavior." It is Ximian (not Gnome) that has crossed the line.

Trademarks Notices. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Google is a trademark of Google, Inc. Slashdot is a trademark of OSDN. Ximian is a trademark of Ximian, Inc. Trolltech and Qt are trademarks of Trolltech AS. KDE is a trademark of the KDE Project. All other trademarks and copyrights referred to in this announcement are the property of their respective owners.