A very common Markdown spat

I came across Hilton Lipshitz’s post titled “Standard Markdown” in my feeds that interested me. As you probably know, I use MultiMarkdown routinely and it has changed how I work. MultiMarkdown, of course, owes its origins to John Gruber’s original Markdown project and expands on the original syntax. I followed the link to the Standard Markdown link in Lipshitz’s post and found this:

Standard Markdown

I followed the link to Jeff Atwood’s very apologetic post titled “Standard Markdown is now Common Markdown” in which he explains the following:

We’ve been working on the Standard Markdown project for about two years now. As we got closer to being ready for public feedback, we emailed John Gruber, the original creator of Markdown, two weeks ago (On August 19th, to be precise) with a link to the Standard Markdown spec, asking him for his feedback. Since John MacFarlane was the primary author of most of the work, we suggested that he be the one to reach out.

We then waited two weeks for a response.

There was no response, so we assumed that John Gruber was either OK with the project (and its name), or didn’t care. So we proceeded.

Atwood’s original announcement post is “Standard Flavored Markdown“. He then goes on to outline how Gruber took issue with Standard Markdown’s name.

It was a bit of a surprise to get an email last night, addressed to both me and John MacFarlane, from John Gruber indicating that the name Standard Markdown was “infuriating”.

Gruber also seemed to have concerns about the syntax used, based on this tweet:

Atwood and his co-developers were asked to rename their project, shut down the “Standard Markdown” page, not redirect it and apologise to Gruber. They complied, apologised again, and explained how they arrived at the new project name, CommonMark.

Gruber has a number of supporters who have commented variations of this comment

I think the Gruber has reason to be upset. Name it something other then ‘Standard Markdown’, make it clear that it is not affiliated with, or endorsed by Gruber.

and this tweet:

Gruber’s Markdown license is a variation of a BSD software license although it is somewhat contradictory.

After describing it as “a BSD-style open source licence”, he prefaces the license text with the following:

Copyright © 2004, John Gruber
All rights reserved.

The contradiction is caused by his rights reservation. You can’t reserve all your rights and then, at the same time, grant permissions in a license (which is what a license is). In any event it was probably an oversight on Gruber’s part.

The license permissions are the following:

Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions are met:

  • Redistributions of source code must retain the above copyright notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer.

  • Redistributions in binary form must reproduce the above copyright notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer in the documentation and/or other materials provided with the distribution

  • Neither the name “Markdown” nor the names of its contributors may be used to endorse or promote products derived from this software without specific prior written permission.

Clearly the last part imposes a restriction on uses of the word “Markdown” “without specific prior written permission” which, based on Atwood’s post, he and his team never received so they should not have used the word “Markdown” in their project’s name. Gruber’s restriction is analogous to trademark protection and since it forms part of the Markdown license terms, anyone who wants to use the Markdown software in some way has to comply.

That said, from what little we know about Gruber’s response, it seems somewhat curmudgeonly and is one of those things that leaves a bad taste. Part of the reason for this spat is probably that Markdown was described in “open-source” terms and, to many that sounds a lot like “free to use with no restrictions”. That is certainly not the case here. If anything, this is a cautionary tale for developers who need to pay careful attention to the fine print in the fine print, even when it comes to seemingly “open-source” licensed code.


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