March 13, 2004

Windows, Lindows, and Transitivity

One of the many companies selling a version of Linux, the free/libre open source version of Unix, is Lindows, whose product is aimed at non-technical people who currently use Microsoft Windows. Lindows sells a version that is particularly easy to install and update and that provides an interface that is very similar to that of Microsoft Windows. The name Lindows is a blend of Linux and Windows. Microsoft does not like the competition and has been claiming that Lindows is so similar to Windows that the two are likely to be confused. In December, 2001 Microsoft filed suit in the United States for trademark infringment.

Thus far, Microsoft has not been successful in the United States. (A detailed chronology and copies of legal documents are available here.) The biggest sticking point is that Lindows is similar to Windows but unquestionably distinct from Microsoft Windows. In order for Microsoft to prevail, the court must rule that Windows by itself is a valid trademark. However, there is strong evidence that windows is a generic term for windows on a computer. For instance, here is what one of my desktops looked like a short time ago.


As you can see, it contains a bunch of windows, none of which has anything to do with Microsoft since my computers all run GNU/Linux. [The background is one of the new images of the surface of Mars, in case you're wondering. According to this report, the servers that distribute these images run GNU/Linux.] The term window was applied to such windows, which Microsoft did not invent, before Microsoft added them to its operating system.

Microsoft has been more successful outside of the United States. A Dutch court has ruled that Lindows infringes Microsoft's trademark and has ordered Lindows not to use the name Lindows in the Benelux countries. I think that this is a flawed decision, for two reasons. First, no one with half a brain could possibly confuse the two products. If you go to the Lindows web site and the Microsoft Windows home page you'll find very different looking web pages, with different logos. Lindows goes to some length to differentiate itself from Microsoft. Many pages on its site, including the one entitled What is LindowsOS?, end in this statement: is not endorsed by or affiliated with Microsoft Corporation in any way - in fact, we don't even really like them because they are suing us.
Second, in order to reach the conclusion that windows by itself is a valid trademark, the court claimed that although window is a generic term in English, it is not a generic term in the languages of the Benelux countries. Given the widespread use of English terminology in the computer domain all over the world, this is a dubious claim. Following standard Language Log practice, I used Google to get some data. I used the search terms:

window Nederland Linux maar

I included Linux so as to avoid getting oodles of hits on sites dealing only with Microsoft Windows, and the Dutch words Nederland "Holland" and maar "but" to find sites in Dutch. Sure enough, I had no trouble finding instances of the word window in its generic computer sense in Dutch text. Here's one example, from the web site of RES Multimedia. I've highlighted the generic uses of the word window:
Workstation features:
• Onmiddellijk herstel van onderbroken VMware sessies.
• Elke VMware wereld is gelijk aan een volledige PC in een window.
• Volledige netwerkondersteuning, dial-up toegang en file-sharing ondersteuning.
• Ondersteuning van SCSI en IDE schijven.
• Beeld in een Window of full-screen.
• Draai Dos, Windows 3.x, Windows '95, Windows '98, Windows NT, Windows 2000, BreeBSD, Linux en andere Intel operating systems onder VMware workstation.
• Operating systems draaien tegelijkertijd, zonder te rebooten.
• Voeg nieuwe operating systems toe zonder uw schijven te herpartitioneren.
• VMware workstation installeert als elke andere applicatie.
This section of the site is an advertisement for a product called VMWare, which allows you to run multiple operating systems on a single computer simultaneously. The second item says "Each VMWare world is like a full PC in one window". The fifth item says "Display in a window or full-screen."

Here's another example, which I found at this Dutch Linux site in an explanation of the features of, the FLOSS office suite:

Verschillende extra windowtjes maken bepaalde opties en view modes makkelijk bereikbaar.
It says:
Various extra little windows make specific options and view modes readily available.
Notice that in this case the word window bears the diminutive suffix tje, which is good evidence that the word has truly been incorporated into Dutch.

So, I think that the Dutch court erred and hope that the decision will be reversed on appeal. But the situation gets worse. In order to comply with the court's decision, in the Benelux countries Lindows has shifted to using the brand name Lin---s, which it suggests that people pronounce as if it were written LinDash. According to this article in the Register Microsoft has filed another complaint with the court. Now they claim that LinDash sounds too much like Windows. That's pretty shaky if you ask me. They also claim that Lin---s infringes their trademark because people, "when confronted with 'Lin---s', will be reminded of 'Lindows'", and Lindows in turn is too similar to Windows.

This is nonsense. If you follow this logic, any two terms can be argued to be excessively similar because they are connected by a chain, possibly with many links, where each link is short. Here's my demonstration that Microsoft and Apple are easily confusable:

Microsoft Micresoft Mikesoft MySoft MyLoft Syloft Signoff Sinnof Sanoff Sanol Sampol Ampol Ample Apple

Each pair of words is similar enough that if one were a trademark a reasonable case could be made that the other was so similar as to be infringing, but no reasonable person would consider Microsoft and Apple to be confusable. I hope that the court is smarter than Microsoft's lawyers and understands that similarity is not a transitive relation.

Incidentally, this is why it doesn't work to define dialects as linguistic varieties that are mutually comprehensible, as opposed to languages, which are not mutually comprehensible. Comprehensibility is like similarity; it isn't transitive. You can't have a classification without an equivalence relation, and one of the three defining properties of an equivalence relation is transitivity. (The other two are symmetry and reflexivity.) It is easy to find chains of linguistic varieties where A and B are mutually comprehensible and B and C are mutually comprehensible and C and D are mutually comprehensible and so forth, but once you get a few links apart, the varieties are not mutually comprehensible. This resuls in a contradiction. If A and B are dialects of the same language, and B and C are dialects of the same language, then A and C must be dialects of the same language. But if A and C are not mutually comprehensible, by this criterion they aren't dialects of the same language.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 13, 2004 01:19 AM