IBM gets bill for Linux love notes

The city of San Francisco on Monday quashed some of the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with the Linux operating system when it reached a settlement with IBM Corp. that will have the vendor pay US$120,000 to compensate the city for damages caused by a “guerrilla” marketing campaign centered around Linux.

In April, IBM began spray-painting Linux advertisements on the streets of San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, hoping to raise interest in the operating system that battles software from Microsoft Corp. and other vendors. Although the logos – a peace symbol, a heart shape and a tubby penguin – stirred the public, they also triggered the ire of city officials.

“It is the worst message that can be sent to have a corporations sanction vandalism on city streets,” said Gavin Newsome, supervisor for San Francisco city and county, who was closely involved with the case. “It is contrary to what we are trying to do, which is to add to the beauty of San Francisco and make a clean place to live.”

IBM has already said it will spend US$1 billion to help support the growth of Linux, but the company will have to add at least US$120,000 to that total as part of its penance for the advertising campaign, Newsome said. The vendor will pay US$10,000 in clean-up costs, close to $10,000 in city attorney’s fees and then US$100,000 to San Francisco’s Clean Streets program for removing graffiti and trash.

IBM has reached tentative deals with all the cities involved, with compensation varying widely in each case, according to a source familiar with the matter.

IBM had balked initially at talks with the city of San Francisco and refused to tell city officials the names of the local advertising companies they hired to paint the logos, Newsome said. The city, however, refused to back down from Big Blue’s challenges and even instituted new legislation to help it go after this type of vandalism more aggressively, he said.

“We were sticking to our guns,” Newsome said. “I had no interest in settling for anything less than US$100,000.”

The city tallied up 308 locations where Tux, the chubby penguin trademark of Linux, had left his mark. Each Tux sighting would normally cost IBM a US$500 fine and a misdemeanor charge, Newsome said. If the city had given IBM the same punishment it usually reserves for rambunctious adolescents, it would have cost IBM US$154,000 just in fines and then more in clean-up costs.

IBM declined to comment on the matter at this time.

Although San Francisco won its battle against IBM, Newsome fears the city may have lost the war.

“To a degree, they may have succeeded,” he said. “I know the value of word of mouth, and hearing IBM, IBM, IBM all the time as a result of this is quite advantageous.”

The very youngsters IBM may have hoped to reach with the advertisements may also find the company’s struggle against the city appealing, Newsome said, and the news coverage also helped the company’s case.

In the end, however, IBM will have to pay. Newsome expects the deal to be signed off by the mayor in mid-December.