Operator and brand - how to tag things that are independent?

“operator” and “brand” are frequently used with amenities to indicate who’s actually running them. A small minority of these are tagged with various spellings or misspellings of “independent”, for example this pub. The problem is that there isn’t actually an operator called “independent” in these cases. The brand and operator wiki pages don’t mention it directly. There are actually dozens of companies actually called something like “Independent”, so it can’t really be used as a “special word” here.

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In my opinion, a POI shouldn’t have a tag as independent (even with another special tag). As you can say, the meaning can be ambiguous.

I’m used to either duplicate the name in the operator field or use the name as it’s stated as a company (often including the shape of the company, like S.A, Cooperative, etc.). This give some hint that it’s an independent company, I guess. I don’t know whether it’s correct or not, but I’m curious about what is the recommended way.

Given the context I’d think this is quite a useful thing to be able to tag. There is an undocumented key
operator_type, but the values do not encompass the kind of thing expressed here, where values might be something like independent, franchisee, chain and could apply to a range of hospitality & retail outlets (franchisee has two entries under operator). McDonald’s for instance have different operation structures by country: mainly chain operated in the UK, predominantly franchises in the US. I was a bit surprised that Costa in Belfast City was effectively an Irish company and didn’t offer loyalty points on the GB scheme.

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I do the same as you. There are stores and amenities with a public facing name and a legal name as businesses.
As examples

name = OpenStreetMap
operator = OpenStreetMap Foundation 
name = SomeName
operator = SomeName S.R.L.
name = SomeStore
operator = UnrelatedName GmbH

If some place is run by a non-incorporated entity either a family, a person or a group of persons without juridic personery, I don’t add operator tags. Likewise with the brand tag. I try to reserve that for stores with exclusivity contracts like spare part shops or franchises like fast food places and ice cream parlors.

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I often like X:absent=yes for “tag X should be empty”. Don’t think anything supports it.

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for petrol station brands, some people have used “brand=independent” but the better way is to add the actual brand (generally around here, “independent” petrol stations invent their own brand, even if they only operate 1 or 2 stations).
If there is no brand (e.g. purposefully), nobrand seems to fit well with the similar noname, nohousenumber etc nobrand | Keys | OpenStreetMap Taginfo

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it could be an alternative to more established tagging, with the benefit of introducing an universally applicable scheme, but currently there isn’t any significant usage, in total 123 times used, of which 106 are name:absent
compared to 600k noname=*

or is there a different meaning?

Absent implies that name or value is missing. Like “the gas station 3rd and 5th is vacant.” Nowhere is the statement is a brand of the station mentioned. Verses stations with no or some generic name like Bob’s, which effectively has no name. Especially when the operator is a local named Bob. Absent should be use when an entity probably has a name but it is currently missing or unknown. It could also be useful when a business is changing its branding or a logo in an image was unrecognizable.