It is foolish to think that DMCA notices and legal action alone can stop or even seriously curtail blog content misuse. Without legal alternatives and fair licensing schemes, the problem of content misuse is just going to continue growing.
That is one of the reasons that, on this site, I have tried very hard to cover content licensing as well as plagiarism and copyright infringement detection/cessation. My goal has always been to help Webmasters develop a balanced system for protecting and exploiting their work.
However, even as companies have risen to the challenge of helping bloggers detect and stop plagiarism and content theft, those that have attempted to make a business off helping bloggers license their content have, for the most part, fallen flat.
So where did these companies go wrong? What can be done to fix the problem? Is content licensing dead as a business model?
These are tough questions without easy answers.
The Problem Comes to Light
In late 2006, I hard written a post entitled Content Licensing: The Sensational Seven that detailed the best content licensing sites available at that time.
When I ran across the article a week ago, I realized that three of the services, Lisensa, Scoopt Words and Yepic had all either closed shop or had announced their closure.
But while three closures out of seven may be a good percentage, especially considering the failure rate of startups in general, it is important to note that two of the four remaining, Numly and Registered Commons, are non-repudiation services that allow bloggers to also affix license information and one of the two licensing services, Copyright.com, is a stalwart of the traditional media not targeted at bloggers.
Only one licensing service in the article, BlogBurst, was both targeted at bloggers and was still in business after a year and a half.
To the credit of those who closed, Lisensa was replaced by RightsAgent, which is still in operation but struggling to gain traction, Scoopt is continuing to offer their photography licensing service and Yepic, despite a promised closure date of June 8th, is still active (though various parts of the site seem to be in disarray).
It is clear that companies who try to make a living off of helping bloggers license their content for money are struggling but why is something of a mystery.
The answer, however, likely lies in the medium itself and the challenges that any company would face in trying to market free content for cash.
Not-So Happy Times
Theoretically, these should be good times for companies wanting to get in on licensing blog content. Creative Commons launched their CC+ initiative, which makes it possible to extend Creative Commons Licenses, making it easy to start such a business and build on the success off CC.
Most importantly though, largely thanks to Creative Commons, more bloggers than ever are aware of and thinking about content licensing. It is a popular topic for bloggers and becoming better understood every day.
The problem, however, is not a lack of bloggers. The problem is a lack of buyers. Though bloggers seem to be relatively easy to lure with promises of easy licensing and quick money, few seem to be willing to buy what they are selling.
The result is that most accounts make little, if any, money and the company stuggles to earn a profit off the few who do generate sales.
The reason for this is five fundamental flaws with licensing blog content for cash:
- Quality: Though most blogs are good to the people who read them, very few are up to the standards of people who would want to pay money for content.
- Content is Already Free: The content involved, in most cases, is already free on the Web and most bloggers will give permission for reuse with a simple letter and a promise of attribution. This also creates duplicate content issues and makes the purchaser second to publish the work, further reducing the work’s value to a potential buyer.
- Limited Buyer Pool: Even if the work is seen to be of high value, there is a very small pool of potential buyers. Mainstream media outlets and blog networks are two obvious choices, but very few bloggers are going to pay for content they could easily write.
- Paid Blogging: For most potential buyers, it is a better deal for them to contact a blogger and have them create custom content for their site at a rate likely comparable to purchasing the old, stale content from their blog.
- Confusion: Licensing content is confusing to start with and the injection of a middle man, generally, does not help. It introduces a third party and, depending on the system, can make things much worse in this area.
The result of this is that the vast majority of blog content licensing services are destined to fail and it would seem that the industry is largely doomed before it begins.
However, there are ways companies an exploit this and turn what appears to the ultimate buyer’s market into a place where serious money can be made.
Gold from a Coal Mine
It is clear that profiting from blog licensing is going to require more than just having bloggers put a badge on their site and raking in the profits.
If a company is going to stay alive in the blog licensing field, they need to look at other options.
- Be a Non-Profit: The first idea is to simply not worry about profit at all, be like Creative Commons and just offer tools and resources to help bloggers, as well as other Webmasters, and rely on donations and good will. Though CC seems to have a lock on this market, there may be room for other players if they can bring something new to the market.
- Perform Quality Control: Blog Burst has remained successful in large part due to its quality control. Most blogs are not accepted into the service and this keeps the non-selling membership to a minimum.
- Sell the Blogger: Rather than trying to sell the actual blog content, consider selling the blogger and making him or her available for custom writing jobs. In short, don’t be an agent for the words, be an agent for the person.
- Offer an Additional Service: Registered Commons, My Free Copyright and Numly all offer licensing assistances as part of their service but primarily focus on being non-repudiation services. This keeps them from relying on the licensing element as a business model.
- Profit from the Bloggers: Since bloggers will inevitably outnumber buyers, profiting from them makes sense. This can be done either through ad revenue or, if you can justify it, a fee for your services.
- Premium Content: One can also skip the issue of trying to sell recycled content and focus on selling “premium” content by bloggers, something that Associated Content and Yepic both attempt to do.
The key is to not rely on the sale of regular blog content as your business model. Though many bloggers produce great work well worth the price they request for licensing it, the nature of blog content limits how much others will pay for it and how often they will buy.
Optimism. Or Something Like It
This is not to say that I am completely gloomy about the future of blog content licensing, just that I think the traditional business model of making money by selling already-available content is not likely to thrive, even though licensing companies can exploit the “long tail” and offer a wide variety of information to buyers.
Still, there are several blog licensing companies that I am optimistic about. Companies that have either proved themselves already or are exploring promising new models.
- BlogBurst: Controversial it may have been at times, there is little doubt that Blog Burst has been around longer than just about anyone in this field. Their tight quality controls and strong partnerships with mainstream media have kept them going even as others have struggled to gain traction.
- iCopyright Creators: Though the Creators service is new, iCopyright is not. It is a well-established and trusted name in content licensing, used by outlets such as the Associated Press and Reuters. Combined with a business model that takes no revenue from actual licensing deals, it has promise to be a major player in the future, if it can gain traction.
- Associated Content: Another industry stalwart, Associated Content has an effective rating system that works to perform some quality control and a business model that combines sales and advertising revenue. Also, it’s focus on premium, unique content seems to help it attract both visitors and customers.
While other companies will likely still be around in a few years, especially the non-profits and those primarily offering other services, these are the content salesmen right now that seem to have the best position and the brightest future.
Of course, on the Web, that can change in a moment’s notice.
Note: Mentioning a company in this list is not necessarily approval for their service or their policies, just an observation that they appear to be in a good position to be in business years down the road. See other articles on the site for my opinions about the companies.
I think the problem with content licensing can be summarized by taking a quick look at my user page on RightsAgent.
Though I added the button to my site shortly after publishing my first article about them back in January, this site has only received six “credits”.
Since my content is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, meaning there is no fee for commercial use, there is no charge for these credits. RightsAgent has been offered for the convinience of the licensor (to aid in proper attribution) and the mutual protection of the two of us.
So far, by my math, no one has taken advantage of it. All six credits were given to myself by me during testing. This is despite the fact that dozens of sites have reused content on PT, with my blessing.
Though many may consider RightsAgent superfluous on this site, it is worrisome that no one was at least curious about the functionality it can provide.
The simple truth is that almost no one wants to go through a third party to license blog content and, while the business model can work, it is going to require more than simply being a passive salesman. It is about brokering deals, controlling quality and forging relationships.
In short, these companies need to function less like Web 2.0 services and more like traditional agents. Sometimes there is no substitute for a large personal network or a handshake agreement.
If blog licensing companies wish to succeed, they need to learn how to combine the traditional license dealmaking with new technologies.
If they can do that, then I suspect there is nothing stopping one from making a decent living helping bloggers license their works.