Musings and misadventures of an expat enterpreneur

My public comments on the Rust Foundation Proposed Trademark Policy

anelson April 14, 2023 #politics #rust

The Rust Foundation ruffled a lot of feathers when they posted a draft Trademark Policy document that is…well..let’s say it’s heavy-handed to an extent that seems far out of proportion to the necessary protection of a legal trademark. A kerfuffle has ensued, and the Foundation wrote a blog post kind-of explaining their position, but without actually acknowledging any of the concerns about the policy.

I was so upset by the imperious tone and jack-booted authoritarian particulars of this policy that I actually wrote up a formal comment which I submitted to the foundation via the feedback form linked in the blog post. I encourage anyone else who was as outraged as I was by this proposed policy to comment as well. The full text of my comments as submitted are reproduced below:

I read the blog post at https://blog.rust-lang.org/inside-rust/2023/04/12/trademark-policy-draft-feedback.html, which explains that this policy derives from the starting principle that Rust should be a trademark owned by the Foundation, and under US (and maybe international) trademark law that obligates the Foundation to take some minimum steps to defend that trademark lest trademark protection be forfeited. I don’t doubt that this statement is true, and I don’t have any objection in principle to protecting the trademark. However I think it’s important to remember that the raison d’etre of the Foundation is not the defense of the Rust trademark, therefore the goal of maintaining the trademark must be balanced against other more important considerations. I’m not a Foundation member, just a passionate user of Rust for many years, so I must humbly submit that one such more important consideration must be preserving the freedom of the Rust community to write, share, talk about, debate, and proselytize the Rust language and ecosystem to a diverse audience the world over. I hope that’s not a controversial position to take.

Evaluating the proposed policy through that lens, I find much there that I disagree with. I love using Rust, have built a startup around Rust, pay dozens of programmers to write production Rust code full time, and want very much to continue to do that indefinitely. My initial reaction to the trademark policy draft was very…emotional…and even now having had some time to think about it, you’ll no doubt hear the emotion in my words below. I’m operating from the assumption that the parties involved are acting in good faith, and are genuinely receptive to thoughtful commentary, and I hope you will take my (sometimes emotional) comments in the spirit of cooperation in which they are intended. My goal here in taking the time to write this up is to help prevent the Foundation from going in a direction that I think will be detrimental to the community, and will definitely be detrimental to my continued investment in the Rust ecosystem.

Let’s first start with the requirement that blog posts must explicitly not be endorsed by the Rust Foundation. This imperious demand triggers a strong emotional reaction for me, which I’ll do my best to control as I register my objections. The required disclosure language is provided in the policy along with the conditions under which it must be displayed. So if I’m writing a “Why I Love Rust” or “Rust Sucks” or “Rust is the savior of the downtrodden Go developers toiling endlessly under the lash of Rob Pike’s hubris”, I must first recite the Foundation-mandated incantation to make it clear to my (apparently presumed to be very dim-witted) audience that the screed that follows does not bear the imprimatur of the Rust Foundation. That is (I’m desperately trying to remain civil here)…suboptimal. Not even the demon spawn Oracle lawyers had the audacity to make that demand of the Java community, and yet the Rust Foundation’s lawyers apparently take the position that failure to adopt this policy will surrender the trademark. If that’s true (and I’m quite sure it’s not), then surrender trademark protection. It’s not worth it.

Next we’ll address the guidance that the word “Rust” should not appear in crate names, supposedly because this creates the impression that such crates are official or blessed by the Foundation in some way. This is, again….suboptimal. The lawyers are effectively saying that Rust developers who want to share the work they’ve done, freely, by publishing their crates to crates.io, must not use the word “Rust” in the names of their crates. The Foundation graciously allows us the use of “RS” instead. That’s so absurd that when I first heard the claim that this was the policy, I assumed it was clickbait and overstated the actual language. But having read it, I see that this is actually a policy that someone thought was reasonable and consistent with the minimum trademark protection necessary to retain the right to the mark. I will say again here, that I don’t believe your lawyers if they’re claiming that you must do this or you will surrender the trademark, but if that is in fact the case, surrender the trademark. This kind of “rules-are-rules” blind policy-making is what I expect from a Fortune 500 HR department, not the people who are supposed to be the stewards of the most loved programming language.

If you’re really worried about distinguishing between official Rust crates and third party crates, then finally get around to having namespaces on crates.io, just like Github and Docker and countless other services do. Then you can say that the rust/ prefix means Rust Foundation official crates. I’m then free to make anelson/rust-sandbox without getting a C&D from your very clearly humorless attorneys.

After having taken a few moments to breathe deeply and get my blood pressure back to safe levels, let’s proceed.

The next outrageous diktat I’d like to address is related to domain names. This doesn’t impact me personally, I don’t use any domain names with “rust” in them, but the absurdity of the claim cries out for comment. The idea that the mere the act of registering and serving content from a domain name containing the string “rust” is an infringement of the mark is so outrageous that I hope it was simply not intended that way and will be corrected forthwith. The alternative, that the Foundation and its attorneys think their stewardship of the Rust community includes prohibiting the creation of Rust websites that have “rust” in the domain name, is too depressing to contemplate. If there are any other widely used open source projects whose leadership places their boot on the collective necks of their community in this regard, I am not aware of it (and were I made aware of it, I would certainly avoid it).

Up to this point, I’ve been pointing out policy elements that could perhaps be represented as part of the minimal defense of the trademark necessary to retain ownership of the mark. I’ve made it clear my skepticism of this representation, but my objections boiled down to a disagreement as to what constitutes a minimal defense. However I’m sad to say the policy goes well beyond that good-faith-but-debatable position, into territory which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to activism. To wit:

Section 5.2.1 regarding User Groups, graciously permits Rust user groups to call themselves Rust user groups, but only if they formally adopt and enforce a “robust Code of Conduct”. I did not go to law school, and to the extent that I practice law on Internet forum posts it’s without a license, however I am quite sure that trademark law does not consider the application of a Code of Conduct when evaluating trademark claims. Setting aside for the moment that the policy does not define “robust Code of Conduct”, I find the prescription that only user groups who adopt such a code may be permitted to call themselves Rust user groups to be an absurd overreach on the part of the Foundation. What possible purpose could this diktat serve? Perhaps the Foundation members like robust codes of conduct and think they are great and that all spheres of human social activity should be governed by them. Maybe that’s even a good idea. But what is that opinion doing in a trademark policy?? It is completely inappropriate, and in my mind belies an attempt to use the cudgel of trademark law to impose the political preferences of Foundation members on the community, whether that community likes it or not. Suffice it to say that this community member, at least, does not like it.

Were I younger and more impulsive this alone would motivate me to start the Outlaw Rust User Group, an illegal gang taking pride in turning its back on the strictures of moral society, setting fire to their Codes of Conduct, and rolling dirty on the open road, always one step ahead of the their nemesis the Rust Foundation corporate counsel and their evil sidekicks the Tone Police. As it is I’ll have to settle for shit-posting on the Internet, but I’m dismayed it’s even come to that.

I’ve saved the bulk of my ire, and what remains of my vascular health, for Section 5.3.1, regarding events and conferences. Here the trademark enforcement mask drops, revealing naked political activism beneath. The ridiculous prohibition on the use of the word “Rust” in a Rust event pops up here again, but I’ve registered my displeasure at that elsewhere in these remarks. I want to draw attention to the list of minimum requirements that the Foundation will impose when deciding whether a particular event will be blessed or not, in particular:

prohibit the carrying of firearms, comply with local health regulations, and have a robust Code of Conduct

I’ve already taken issue with the “robust CoC” bit earlier, so let’s focus on the other two, regarding the carrying of firearms and compliance with local health regulations.

It’s clear that “compliance with local health regulations” is a reference to the pandemic-era mask and vaccine passport requirements. This is an absurd addition to a trademark policy. If there is a local health regulation that has the force of law, then it seems pointless to add a requirement to “follow this particular category of local law” to the list. We can assume that obeying the law is required. If the regulations don’t have the force of law, but are recommendations, then who are the Rust Foundation to presume to dictate which local recommendations event organizers must comply with? Why is this even in here? Is it meant to be a stick in the eye to all of those renegade contrarian Rustaceans who defiantly met to talk about Rust without masks or vaccine passports in 2021? If so my outrage stems in part from the fact that I was not invited.

However upsetting the local health regulations is, the prohibition on the carrying of firearms is an order of magnitude moreso. I assume this language came from an American, as I doubt anyone from another country would even think this is the kind of thing that must be said. This presumed American presumably doesn’t like firearms and probably would prefer to ban them entirely, but failing that they must at the very least be prohibited in any gatherings bearing the imprimatur of the Rust trademark. I must ask: why?? If a particular event organizer wants to ban the carrying of firearms, there is a legally enforceable mechanism to do that in every US state. I’m not aware of an epidemic of gun battles at Rust conferences breaking out over heated debates about the right way to implement HKTs or whether the current async syntax was a mistake, so clearly this not a reaction to a real problem but rather is a projection of some authors’ political preferences. That any member of the Foundation would consider it appropriate to insert their own political biases into a trademark policy document calls into question their suitability for the roles they presently occupy.

Maybe firearms have no place in Rust conferences. I think that’s a very broad statement that’s hard to defend at the margins, but it’s a political position that I’m sure many Rustaceans share. Perhaps alcohol doesn’t belong in Rust conferences; after all it kills a lot of people every year and seems to have little or no health benefits. Serving meat is perhaps not appropriate at Rust conferences, since it’s offensive to vegans and anyway consumes a lot more resources than plant matter. Sugary drinks might ought to have no place at Rust conferences, since they spike insulin levels, and are very bad for one’s dental health. Smoking within 100 feet of a Rust conference is definitely out of the question for what are hopefully obvious reasons. Invoking the Judeo-Christian God in a Rust conference would definitely not go over well and should probably be restricted. If we all sat down a made a list of things that we think in our opinion don’t belong in Rust conferences, I’m sure we’d come up with a long list, and most of us would disagree on the particulars.

A great way to get around that problem is to not insert our political perferences into trademark policy documents.

I don’t understand what the thought process was here. On the one hand, the Rust Foundation supposedly values inclusivity and diversity, and on the other hand they dictate from on high in matters not related to Rust at all, assuming that their opinion matters more, imposing their will on all Rustaceans across the globe in all jurisdictions. I fear for the future of Rust if this is the direction the Foundation will take. Where does this lead? Will a future version prohibit the use of the Rust toolchain in the furtherance of activities that the politically active Foundation members find objectionable? Will speakers who privately hold beliefs that are out of step with the prevailing fashions on social media be banned from Rust conferences? Will we freedom-loving Rust users be forced to fork the project and make Frust, the free Rust, and litigate the question of fair use with the Rust Foundation lawyers while we swagger, armed and maskless, around our renegade conferences breathing the free air (which smells suspiciously of cigar smoke and scotch)? That’s not a future I want any part in (I wouldn’t mind the scotch part but the rest is downright dystopian).

I could rant at length about the overall tone of the policy document and other particular sections, however this has gone on much longer than I intended already, and I think I’ve addressed the main points of contention. I hope my comments are taken in the spirit in which they are intended, and that my strong opinions on this matter are not mistaken for disrespect or abuse. I urge you to reconsider this entire policy framework and whatever legal analysis informed its development. I’m sure it’s possible to protect the Rust trademarks without the significant harm to the community cohesion and goodwill that this proposed policy will inflict.

Sincerely,

I really hope they back away from this authoritarian direction. It’s been clear since the early days that the Rust team tend towards the politically progressive in a fashion more overt than I think is appropriate, but up to this point I was able chalk that up to political differences because it didn’t significantly impact my use of, and enjoyment of, Rust (there was that time I had to do some work because they wanted to virtue signal and changed a warning from blacklisted_keywords to disallowed_keywords or something like that, but I muttered under my breath and moved on). Unfortunately this goes well beyond virtue-signaling, and crosses over into activism using the Rust Foundation’s trusted role in the Rust community to impose a degree of control over the community that is completely inappropriate for an open source project like Rust.

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