* Parts of the original article have been amended where noted

Ten years ago, John Gruber made a thing called Markdown and promptly abandoned it. Now he’s furious — literally furious — that Atwood and co. have named their spec’ed variant “Standard Markdown”, and also that, horrors, they failed to capitalize the word “Markdown” consistently in the first release of the spec.

I doubt that Standard Common Markdown is going to have any but the usual impact on the dialect soup we currently have. But I find it amusing and sad that Gruber should be acting so boorish and obnoxious.

His demands and attitude seem to stem from his central claim to some kind ownership of the name “Markdown”. This claim has no legal basis, because the name was never trademarked and has been in widespread use for years. The license for Gruber’s original Markdown code does include this clause:

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.

This constraint, however, is part of a software license, and only applies to the use of the code Gruber provided, not his description of the syntax itself. And thanks to the fact that the actual code released under this license is buggy and hasn’t been touched since 2004 and is written in Perl, no one uses it. All of which means the license is completely irrelevant to the question. Who owns the name ‘Markdown’? Legally, no one does.

So Gruber’s claims to the name thus ultimately rely on an assumption of respect owed to him by the developer community. Which is problematic because, looking at how he’s handled his own little codebase, he’s really done none of the things that would command the respect of any decent developer. It’s like your deadbeat dad, who split when you were six years old, showing up at your graduation to tell you how to cut your hair.

Imagine if Tim Berners-Lee had sat on HTML for ten years, clucking that it’s better off with no standardization1. Imagine if Kernighan and Ritchie had objected to Stroustrup calling his language “C++” because it “sounds too much like ownership” (maybe he should have gone with “Plus Flavored C”?). But these comparisons are very unkind to Berners-Lee and K&R; not only were these men too professional to use their creations as weapons in petty personality wars, but the creations themselves are beyond comparison to markdown.pl by any measure you can imagine.

Atwood did the classy thing and apologized to a boor, and for that he has my respect.2 The responsibility for actually defusing the kerfuffle lies with Gruber at this point.

  1. There was a time before HTML standards, and it really sucked. 

  2. Amended; I ought to have realized this sooner, but after Atwood apologized for naming his project without Gruber’s approval, he essentially turned around and did it again in the next breath. Whether he need have apologized is another matter, but having chosen to do so, it was neither smart nor classy to repeat the same move for which he’d just begged pardon. 

Oct 24, 2014 — It’s been seven weeks since the original post, and no one is talking about it anymore, which is probably for the best; but I have some followup.

First of all, I’ve amended the article to reflect that Atwood’s move was not, in fact, classy.

Second, I haven’t seen anyone else mention that this situation with Markdown is identical to what happened with Textile. People who were not Dean Allen standardized and extended the markup language spec without his apparent blessing. These people were nowhere disparaged for doing so, not by Allen, not by anyone else. This is the correct result. Textile, such as it is, is much better for these contributions than it otherwise would have been.

The following are additional facts that have absolutely no bearing on this dispute, but which are nonetheless interesting in a purely historical sense:

  • Markdown the format (not the implementation) had heavy input from the now-deceased Aaron Swartz. Swartz posted his own announcement of Markdown on March 19 2004 (four days after Gruber’s announcement). In that announcement Swartz seems to consider himself pretty much a co-author of the Markdown syntax. Gruber’s announcement of March 15 said only “I’ve written”, with no mention of Swartz; the main Markdown page did (and does) mention Swartz at the bottom, saying he “deserves a tremendous amount of credit for his feedback on the design of Markdown’s formatting syntax. Markdown is much better thanks to Aaron’s ideas, feedback, and testing.” Except for the curious disparity of credit between their two announcement posts, I have to say I feel Gruber’s handling of Swartz’s involvement has been appropriate, especially in light of Swartz’s tragic death.

  • Markdown was originally licensed under the GPL, and was free for personal use with a suggested payment of $50 per domain for commercial use. By early 2005 the license was changed to the current BSD-style license.

Joel (Author) ·