Conservancy Asks Trademark Office to Protect Applicant’s Personal Privacy

September 19, 2019

Software Freedom Conservancy today submitted a petition to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) asking that Office to reconsider recent rulemaking that exposes trademark owners’ personal addresses.  This rulemaking has a direct impact on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) projects and charities (like Conservancy) that work to advance software freedom.  FOSS is developed virtually, with limited budgets, and rarely does a FOSS project have office space.  FOSS projects that register trademarks should not be required to disclose the personal, residential, home address of the project leaders.  Furthermore, software freedom organizations are more likely to be full-telecommute organizations, in which case, the new USPTO rule requires disclosure of officers and/or directors home addresses.

Our petition to the USPTO responds to a recent change the USPTO made to its rules, which now require that individuals provide their residential address in all trademark applications and keep that information current throughout the life of the registration. In the past, the USPTO only required a mailing address, and in particular post office boxes and other paper mail receipt services were acceptable. The address information is available in a public database freely searchable on the Internet. Therefore, this rulemaking opens all trademark owners to a variety of negative consequences in our digital age, and would be acutely felt by those who are most vulnerable. In addition to FOSS project leaders without office-space budget, and who have no wish to share their personal information unnecessarily, our member project Outreachy gives software freedom opportunities to to people who are subjected to systemic bias or who have been impacted by underrepresentation. We always hope our Outreachy interns will later start new FOSS projects and otherwise participate as FOSS project and charity leaders or FOSS business owners. Accordingly,  we must formally object to this new requirement, both for ourselves and the FOSS constituencies we support and foster.

In the petition, Conservancy explains to the USPTO why mandatory disclosure of residential addresses can be so harmful to applicants and paints a complete picture of how essential it is for governmental agencies to take better care in collecting and exposing this information. Anyone hoping to start a new free software project, nonprofit community or new business should strongly consider registering  the trademark for their brand. But many of these people will be working out of their homes, and the new rule would unnecessarily require providing this basic, highly sensitive personal information to the entire world — just to get started. Even worse, the poorer the person, the fewer options available for avoiding it.

Conservancy’s petition also exposes that the USPTO added this requirement without following proper rulemaking procedure. Had they followed the correct  process, the public would have had the opportunity to inform the USPTO on the substantial risk to personal safety the new practice creates, allowing the USPTO to consider other approaches that might better protect privacy interests.

Conservancy asks in its petition that the USPTO temporarily suspend the rule and instead start a new round of rulemaking that will allow the public’s input on the requirement.  Watch our blog, news items, and social media for updates to follow this story, as our petition is the first step in a multi-stage effort to correct this error by the USPTO.