Mitchell Baker recently posted two articles about the use of the “feed icon”) (also known as the “RSS icon”), originally created for use with Firefox, and how best to promote universal use of the icon for use with RSS, Atom and other open web syndication formats. In this post I discuss how the Mozilla Foundation proposes to approach this issue.

However first I want to personally apologize for any confusion and miscommunication around the issue of the feed icon and our proposals for promoting its use, as well as the delays in getting this issue dealt with. (I had meant to post on this topic earlier this week but family medical issues kept me occupied and offline.) I pledge to do what I can to get things back on track and get this issue resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Looking to the community

The feed icon is somewhat unusual; although it was originally created for use with Firefox, it’s not really part of the Firefox or Mozilla “brands,” and our goal with the icon is not to reserve it for our own use but rather to make it available for anyone to use in the context of web syndication services based on open formats.

In this sense the feed icon is closer in spirit to a “community mark” than a traditional trademark. Our goal is that the icon be adopted universally by the entire community of people producing and using innovative products and services based on open web syndication formats, and be conceived of as belonging to that community rather than to any one organization.

As Mitchell notes, we’ve considered a variety of options for how to make the feed icon available, ranging from a very minimal approach to a formal trademark licensing program. We’ve gone back and forth on this question (and as part of that process initiated a trademark application for the feed icon, as Mitchell notes), but in the end we’ve decided to try an approach that attempts to set some clear guidelines for use of the mark but doesn’t attempt to enforce those guidelines through a formal trademark license and associated legal measures.

Instead we want to try a more community-oriented approach in which we give up a large measure of control over the icon in return for getting others’ help in defining and regulating its use. In this proposed approach acceptance of and conformance to the community-defined guidelines—especially by software vendors, online service providers, and others with a commercial interest—becomes a matter of ethical obligations rather than legal obligations.

Our proposed approach

This approach involves three separate components, as noted by Mitchell:

  • A published set of usage guidelines. I’ll be posting a first draft of these guidelines very soon. I’ve just posted a first draft.

  • A public process by which the community can influence the evolution of the feed icon and its associated guidelines. We’re volunteering the Mozilla Foundation as an organization under whose auspices this process can operate, and proposing to host at least initial discussions using our existing public forums, and in particular the newsgroup and the corresponding mailing list.

    Note that that doesn’t preclude people from having discussions in other forums, including their own blogs and mailing lists; however we think it’s convenient to have at least one central place where people can have a reasonable expectation that their comments and questions will be addressed.

  • A mechanism whereby those using the feed icon, especially those with comercial interests at stake, can publicly signify their acceptance of the feed icon usage guidelines and their commitment to participate and comply with the result of the community process to oversee and evolve those guidelines. In our opinion such public commitments are essential to enabling the community to oversee the icon’s use and hold organizations and individuals ethically accountable for their actions.

Giving up control

As Mitchell and I have previously discussed, our primary interest is in promoting the use of the feed icon as a universally-recognized symbol that “means something” to users in the context of web-based information and associated applications. We have no proprietary interest in the icon as such.

In particular, we’re not claiming the feed icon for our own exclusive use, nor are we claiming any special rights with regard to our own uses of the icon. We intend to follow the same guidelines as everyone else, and will accept the results of any community consensus about how the guidelines should evolve.

Also note that in this regard the Mozilla Foundation and the Mozilla Corporation play separate roles: The Mozilla Foundation is the organization publishing the icon and the usage guidelines, and the Mozilla Corporation is the organization actually using the icon and abiding by the usage guidelines. If we had taken the alternative approach of enforcing the usage guidelines through a formal trademark licensing program then the Mozilla Corporation would have been a licensee of the feed icon mark on the same terms as anyone else.

We don’t know if the Mozilla Foundation will ultimately be the best organization to act on behalf of the community in the context of the feed icon and its use. However circumstances have put us in the middle of all of this, given that the icon in question was created as part of the Mozilla project and we offered to make it available for use by others, and thus we feel it’s incumbent on us to at least attempt to act for the community in this regard.

However we’re open to the possibility of having another organization take the lead in this, if a suitable organization can be found that shares the goal of promoting universal use of the icon, is acceptable to the various organizations and individuals who have a stake in the promotion and use of the icon, and is willing to take on the task of overseeing the process of defining and enforcing guidelines related to the icon.

As noted above, this is a proposal. Our plan is to get public comments and adjust our approach as appropriate, and to do this within a reasonably short period of time.

(One final note: I moderate all comments on my blog to prevent spam, so if you make a comment or trackback in response to this or other posts of mine please note that it won’t show up until I have time to login and approve it.)

UPDATE: I’ve now published a draft of a proposed set of usage guidelines for the feed icon, as well as a FAQ on the guidelines.