Archive for June 9th, 2006

What do icons mean? (Part 2)

June 9th, 2006

My last post ended with the question: What is the best method of encouraging the use of the RSS icon in Firefox today by many players and still have the icon mean something clear and accurate? There are a few possibilities.

Option 1: The Mozilla Foundation allows the icon to be modified as people want, and to be used on whatever products, services or applications people want to use it on. No one has any particular ability to cause consistency. In other words, we treat the icon like code — use an open source license and turn the icon loose.

This allows maximum flexibility for software vendors and website operators — each can take a recognized image and use it for whatever one want. The flip side is that consumers won’t be able to look at the icon and know what it means. Many consumers are intimidated by the Internet as it is, and struggle to understand the difference between software, search, “the Internet” and data provided by websites. So to my mind, making things clear to the consumer is a high value. The purpose of the icon is to indicate something specific to consumers.

And we know that successful open development efforts have leadership to guide development, not just intellectual property assets floating in the wild. So even this route requires some attention and structure from someone as to how the icon is used, how it develops and how people might want to use the icon.

So to my mind attaching an open source copyright license to the icon and turning it loose seems like a bad plan; one likely to lead to maximum confusion for consumers, and minimum assistance for the groups wanting to create a useful marker for consumers.

Option 2: The other extreme is a classic trademark licensing program. In this setting the Mozilla Foundation licenses the icon as a trademark to everyone on the same terms and has a formal process for managing the evolution and use of the mark. That process might be community focused, and the Mozilla Foundation would be the ultimate decision-maker as the owner of the mark.

The advantage to this system include:

  • A level of clarity over the degree to which the icon can be assured to mean something to consumers;
  • Having a known “home” for the icon, a known place to bring issues and work out discussions
  • Not all organizations show much respect for community norms. Living within a known legal framework provides another tool for responding to bad actors.

Disadvantages include:

  • Use of trademark law in open and community processes is new and sometimes not well liked.
  • I believe the Free and Open Source Software world is due for a long discussion of trademarks, how we use them, what their value is and so on. Ultimately I’d like to see some Creative Commons type options available for trademark-type purposes. (Creative Commons licenses are all copyright licenses, and do not purport to address the trademark-like issues of providing clarity to consumers about what consumers are getting.) We haven’t had this discussion yet.
  • A formal trademark process can be a significant amount of work. The Mozilla Foundation will take that work on for key marks, like its product marks. The Mozilla Foundation should also be willing to take on leadership, organization and work for other marks that are important to the industry, including the RSS icon. However, taking on these activities before we’ve had the trademark discussion could be counter-productive. If we use the RSS icon to start talking about what industry wide icons can and should mean we should come to some shared understanding (or at least shared vocabulary, if not understanding) of the value of an icon and how best to make this visual clues mean something real for consumers.

Option 3: Another option is to try a less formal process with more authority resided in community norms and seeing how that works. To do this the Mozilla Foundation would:

  • develop a clear set of community norms and usage guidelines;
  • lead a community process for the evolution of the mark and the guidelines; and
  • identify a mechanism where companies using the icon (particularly in software products) publicly pledge to the implementation of the guidelines and complying with the results of the community process.

I believe Option 3 is the best approach for the RSS icon at this point in time. People are interested in the icon, people are already using the icon, we can learn how precise a meaning we believe it should have and how community norms function in this setting.

I’m recommending that the Mozilla Foundation adopt Option 3, publish a set of usage guidelines and proposed community norms (potential examples include: public discussion and evaluation before using the icons for new versions of file formats, proposed modifications of the icon, statement of intent that the icon continue to mean something precise to consumers, etc.) and provide a forum for discussion as soon as possible.

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