The Role of Content Brokers
in the Era of Free Content
9, 2006; very lightly revised, October 2006
I. The problem of
Ever since entering the open content arena in 2000, I have
thought about, and been asked (repeatedly) about, how to pay for free content.
This is a pressing problem for professional
content creators, because of pressures from the Internet.
It is worth rehearsing these pressures and
their source, in order to contextualize a proposal I want to make.
Talk, or low-quality talk, is cheap.
That's why mediocre content online is so
But, as with anything, if you
put a price on talk, you increase its quality.
And that's why there are (and always have been) professional communicators
and artists as well as unpaid amateurs: communicators and artists produce work
of different levels of quality.
The trouble about the Internet, for professional talkers, is
that so many other professional-level
talkers are willing to give away their talk for free.
Over time, so much high-level talk is
available that, as the economics of supply and demand dictate, it becomes
harder and harder to pay for high-level talk.
So what are the talkers supposed to do for a living?
That's the problem of funding free content.
But, as I'll explain next, it's really a
problem about funding content, period--of
getting money into the hands of content producers, period.
After all, oversupply
pressures are a very real practical problem for newspapers that are laying off staff, and for reference publishers and others
who are made very nervous by the availability of massive amounts of free
content available from Wikipedia and other such sources.
II. The traditional
publishing brokerage model under threat
I invite you to think of the economics of publishing on the
model of a brokerage.
A broker is an
agent who arranges and settles a deal between a buyer and seller.
So think of the publisher as an agent who
orders and arranges content from the seller--writer, speaker, artist, or whatever--and
takes money from the info consumer, or the buyer.
"Talk brokers" used to be essential to the task of
publishing, because most sellers (talkers) could not afford printing presses or
changed that: now anyone with an Internet connection can get virtually
unlimited bandwidth on which to rant on, to a potentially global audience, for
as long as he wants.
But there was still
the necessity for editorial services, because the info consumers still needed
someone to edit and select credible and noteworthy information.
Now that, too, is changing.
Aggregation a la Google News, and community editing a la Wikipedia, are providing editorial and selection services for
So, while the traditional role of publishers as talk brokers
may never completely go away, nearly everyone agrees that it is under an
I and many others who
think a lot about collaborative content creation believe that it is only a
matter of time, moreover, before professionals, including academics, jump with
both feet into collaborative content creation.
The Citizendium is committed
to building an expert-guided version of Wikipedia, and in other ways acting as
a clearinghouse for expert-vetted free
If it succeeds, whither the
traditional talk broker role of publishers?
III. A new model of
Perhaps it's sad to say, but publishers are needed less and
less, not because anyone just up and said "We've had enough of them!" but
because current technologies and methods have enabled people to get
together and perform the same basic functions that publishers have
The roles publishers played
as talk brokers--namely, their roles as editors, selectors, printers,
distributors--are instead played by the general public, from students, to
teachers, to civic-minded professional volunteers, and by the processes of
collaboration and aggregation.
are a communicator or artist, free content is (as you probably already know) in
your future, like it or not.
not all be free, but a lot more of it
will be than is now the case.
make it much harder for you, as communicator or artist, to get paid through the
traditional content broker model, and harder for
publishers to make money through their traditional content brokerage services.
We have a new industrial revolution on our
To say this is to describe and explain the problem of
funding free content, not to solve it.
So, in order to move us toward a solution, I would have us redefine the
role of publisher-as-broker.
that we no longer need publishers to act as brokers, it's
that the nature of the brokerage needs to change.
Let me preface this by saying that I surely can't
claim originality, because it's an idea that naturally suggests itself to those
who live in this problem space.
there are already examples of this sort of thing in existence (such as Google
Since first drafting this essay, a promising new effort in
this direction came to light: Jay Rosen's NewAssignment.net.
The following proposal is a slightly
different and more generalized take on the same idea.
So here's the proposal: the public presents an offer for a
specific sum to go to someone who will write authoritatively on such-and-such a
subject; the broker selects the content creator, who creates the content; and
then the broker releases the content to the public, free for all (under, for
example, a Creative Commons license).
buyers are still the general public, but are expanded to include groups of
people, clubs, schools, universities, organizations, governments, and other
entities that pay for the work on behalf of the general public.
The sellers are still communicators and
The brokers can still include
editors, designers, and other publishing industry professionals.
I'll enlarge on how I think the ideal content brokerage
system should work, but first, I should explain how this could possibly solve
the economic problem posed by plentiful free content. "Suppose there is a system in place,"
a critic challenges me, "where people can commission works that are then
released free into the public domain. Why think that this could economically
support the present set of professional content creators?"
My frank answer--the only honest answer, really--is that I
have no idea how things might shake out.
I'm just a philosopher; I must rely on keener economic intellects than
mine to make any prognostications.
I can say is that there is a constant
demand for new content, and people are
willing to offer money (and to pool their money) to pay for free content even
as unsexy as PBS and NPR--or for that matter, as sexy as Wikipedia.
So why don't we give it a try on a wider
Why not give people a credible venue where the following
scenarios could take place?
It would be
very low overhead simply to try it out.
IV. Some new content
- A visual
artist wants to use an obscure, more or less worthless old film that isn't
yet in the public domain.
a way to pay for the film to be free for everyone to use.
The artist offers the money for the
broker to use, and the broker approaches the copyright holder and makes a
credible case that the work will always be free.
The copyright holder figures he'll never
make any more money from the film, and agrees.
Municipal School District wants to offer $100,000 to the person or group
of people who produces an 8th grade general science textbook
that is (1) released under an open content license, and (2) meets Ohio and
Cleveland school standards.
school district approaches the content broker, which posts a call for
proposals, chooses the best proposal, gives the writers some money up
front, vets the result for quality and consistency with standards, acts as
an intermediary between Cleveland schools and the writers, and finally
publishes the textbook online and hands the (balance of the) money to the
Teenagers around the world
can use a new professionally-written text for free.
music aficionado wants to help digitize and release some of the holdings
of a major folk music archive, but the archive says that the rights still
rest with the family of the musicians.
The aficionado gets together with his friends, who persuade a music
organization to collect a $50,000 fund for the families of the
The brokerage tracks
down the family members, persuades them to release the music under a
Creative Commons license, some of the archive holdings are digitized and
made freely available online, and everybody's happy.
Spears' fan club wants to raise $1,000,000 for Britney to record and
release a new song to the public for free.
Maybe they vote on a general theme or style.
The fan club goes to the broker, which approaches Britney's "people," and the deal is
The broker then publicizes
the effort, saying that your credit card won't be charged until the
required amount is reached.
is reached, 24 hours later, the song plays constantly everywhere.
the same thing is done but for an already-published song. Fan club
says: "Let's collect $5,000,000 for ‘Oops I did it again'!"
Catholic Church wants the best possible generally-accessible essay in defense
of the "right to life."
It hits its
members up for cash and collects an astounding $2,000,000 prize.
The Church then asks a content brokerage
group to manage a contest: half of the money, $1,000,000, goes to the best
25-page popular defense of the "right to life."
(You can easily imagine Planned
Parenthood doing something very similar.)
greatly admire the work of a certain philosopher.
I would love for him to write an article
addressed to a specific, recondite philosophical question, but I do not
want him to know that it was I who asked or paid for the essay.
Suppose I set $1,000 aside and ask a
content broker to approach the person and make the deal.
The philosopher writes the essay and
publishes it publicly, saying that it was commissioned by a generous
major benefactor loves the idea of free, collaboratively-developed,
up-to-date information--but wants the world to have something more
authoritative than Wikipedia.
puts $50,000,000 into an escrow account for an expert-authored,
collaborative, free encyclopedia, and says that when others match his
donation, the total will be released to fund the effort.
When others do match his donation, his
foundation then uses part of the money to get a stellar group of academics
and professionals together to spearhead the effort.
publisher who wants to try out the new style of content brokerage
publicizes a new offer: "Stephen King will release a new novel under a
free license if enough fans pony up the required fee.
Your credit card will not be charged
unless enough money is actually produced."
(Back in 2000, King actually did something similar to this with his
unfinished project, The Plant--but
without the result being free.)
conditional pledges roll in at a breakneck speed, and when the magic
number is reached, all the accounts are charged and King is then obliged
to release the novel to everyone, for free.
I've only started to explore the possibilities above.
In fact, let's just say I've deliberately
left out some very exciting possibilities.
Many different kinds of media are possible to commission; many different
kinds of buyers can be organized; many different kinds of content creators can
be solicited (from specific people, to indefinite collaborations, to companies,
etc.); many different kinds of brokerage services, from minimal to very
V. The ideal content
One reason, perhaps, that we as a society are not commissioning
more free content (apart from Public Broadcasting and Google Answers) is that
we do not have a credible, visible content brokerage system in place.
There are many permutations of the general concept of
content brokerage as described in sections III and IV above.
If the idea is feasible and worthwhile, there
might eventually be books written about how content brokerage is best
But I would like to make a
first, amateur attempt to articulate what the ideal content brokerage system
would look like.
Here are some ideas.
buyers would have some incentive to employ professional
content brokers--which would require that content
brokers take a percentage of the amount offered, in order to pay for such
things as editors and designers.
if the concept becomes popular, there will be free, commissionless (and
serviceless) content brokerage websites, but they will probably not be as good
as those that manage the editorial and legal aspects of the work
"full-service" content brokerage would employ people who can manage all different kinds of content
When mature, it should employ
editors and content experts who have large networks--who can quickly and
reliably put their finger on the best person for commissioned jobs.
job of publisher would no doubt change considerably.
Some jobs might be eliminated; new jobs would
But the core competencies
would probably remain the same: working with authors and artists, finding
people to pursue a project, building networks, design, and so forth.
brokers should (and indeed have a business reason to) quickly develop industry
standards with regard to the licensing, archiving, accessing, search, and
presentation of free content.
remains to be done in this direction.
original copyright holder licenses the content, not the content broker.
There is no need, and questionable business
ethics, behind the notion of a content broker collecting much copyright
Its main legal role is, rather,
to ensure that the terms of the exchange (money for content released under a
genuine free license) are legal.
decisions as to whom to award contracts should be constrained by enforceable
codes of ethics.
be transparent, well-documented, and easily reviewable (although not
and artists should not be expected to work for free, or under the threat that
work they spend significant time on will not be paid for.
Money for commissioned work (i.e., which has
not yet been created) should be placed into an escrow account, or in some other
Contracts should make
clear exactly how and under what circumstances a buyer may ask for his money
Of course, people might forego brokers altogether: they
might approach each others with offers of money for work delivered into the
hands of the general public.
VI. Some advantages
and disadvantages of the new brokerage system
The primary advantage of the new brokerage system envisioned
here is that content creators and support
professionals continue to get paid, even when their work is free to
everyone to read and use.
One disadvantage that does
not exist--though one might think at first that it does--is that there is
some risk about all this.
infrastructure to manage the new style of content brokerage already exists at
many publishers, Internet, and media companies.
Such a company--or for that matter, a university, thinktank, or
foundation--could easily circulate calls for content funding with little
(O'Reilly has already done
something vaguely similar with its Open Books initiative.)
If no one bites, so much
the worse for this idea.
suspect that there are many school districts, philanthropists, and many others,
to say nothing of the ordinary people who regularly contribute to charities,
who might find the idea very compelling.
One disadvantage, and it might be a deep one, is that if
this new way of publishing were to win a hegemony, it
would be difficult for unknown writers and artists to gain recognition except
through publishing a lot without payment.
But, under this new scheme, it would become de rigeur for artists to have websites in which people can access
their work and where people can pay them for work already done.
It would be like tipping--and that's only
The ramifications are difficult to calculate; I leave
further discussion of them to others or for later.
What does seem clear is that it is worth
thinking seriously about doing this.
it works in general, it will work in a thousand different ways.