In my article about NPM’s Kik fiasco last week, a commenter lead me to realize I left out an important point. The developer of the original Kik NPM module said he wasn’t aware of the messaging platform of the same name. That’s a shame, because the whole kerfuffle could have been avoided if he had done some cursory searching first.
In the era of startups that seem to be named after Scrabble trays, even if you’ve made up a name, there’s a decent chance someone already made it up. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it, but the context matters.
Avoiding collisions is important for two reasons: branding and legal. The branding consideration is less context-dependent, but is all about how users find and distinguish your project. When Opscode, the company behind the Chef configuration management tool, changed their name to Chef, it made searching for errors and documentation harder. “Opscode chef knife” had much more relevant search results than “chef knife”.
The legal issue is and is not context-dependent. It is in the sense that actually violating a trademark requires some likelihood that the public would be confused. For example, Payless Shoes and the PayLess grocery chain can coexist with a minimum of confusion. However, no actual infringement is required in order to threaten someone with a lawsuit. Most open source projects don’t have the resources to fight a lawsuit, so the natural reaction is to give in, even if the claim is baseless.
So what should you check for? A recent Opensource.com article has some suggestions. In addition, I’d look for collisions on social media platforms, especially if your project is related to that platform. Also consider how the name might be made into a logo. You don’t need one right away in many cases, but when it gets huge, you may want it.