The Link Economy and Creditright


There have long been two creations of value in media: the creation of content, yes, but also the creation of a public — an audience — for it. In legacy news media, the two were usually attached: the creator and the distributor were one in a vertically integrated enterprise (read: a publication). We often debated whether content or distribution was king. The answer didn’t much matter because they were inseparable; they shared the throne. Now these two tasks are — like so much else online — unbundled. Anyone can make content. Anyone can distribute content: its creator (inside or outside an institution), a reader who recommends it, an aggregator or curator who collects it, a search engine that points to it.

Media people tend to believe that content has intrinsic value — that is why they say people should pay for it and why some object when Google quotes snippets from it. But in an ecosystem of links online, new economics are in force. Online, content with no links has no value because it has no audience. Content gains value as it gains links. That formula was the key insight behind Google: that links to content are a signal of its value; thus, the more links to a page from sites that themselves have more links, the more useful, relevant, or valuable that content is likely to be.

The problem for us in the media industry is that we have no marketplace to value the gathering of links and audiences. Our systems are still built primarily around extracting the value of content: paying creators to make it; buying or subscribing to publications that contain it; or syndicating it from one publication to the next. These models are being made obsolete. Huffington Post and Twitter can get thousands of writers — including me — to make content for free because it brings us audience and attention. Selling content is difficult when you compete against others who offer content for free. And syndication is all but outmoded, for why should I buy a piece of content if instead I can link to it for nothing?

Consider an alternative to syndication. I’ll call it reverse syndication. Instead of selling my content to you, what say I give it to you for free? Better yet, I pay you to publish it on your site. The condition: I get to put my ad on the content. I will pay you a share of what I earn from that ad based on how much audience you bring me. That model values the creation of the audience. When The New York Times complains about Huffington Post summarizing its articles, perhaps The Times would be better off offering Huffington Post this deal: Take our stories but keep them intact with Times branding, advertising, and links. We’ll give you a share of what we earn for each story based on the size — and perhaps quality, as measured in attention and demographics — of the audience you bring to it.

For that matter, why should media always force our readers to come to us? Why shouldn’t our content go to them? Before Gutenberg’s press, scholars had to travel to books; after Gutenberg, the books traveled to the scholars. We’ve long had home delivery for newspapers, magazines, and TV, so why not extend that service to content on the web? For years, I had wished for a means to make articles and blog posts embeddable on other sites, just like YouTube videos. If content could travel with its business model attached, we could set it free to travel across the web, gathering recommendations and audience and value as it goes, and thus ending at least part of the fight over the question of whether aggregation is theft. I was about to build a demonstration of the embeddable article at CUNY when Debbie Galant, head of the New Jersey News Commons, did what the author of a book about Google should have thought to do: She searched Google for “embeddable article” and up came Repost.us, already created by entrepreneur and technologist John Pettitt. Repost very cleverly allowed embeddable articles to travel with the creator’s own brand, advertising, analytics, and links. So if you like something on my blog, rather than just quoting and linking to it, you could embed the entire post on your own site with my complete text, my brand, my advertising, and links back to my site. Thus you get free content and I get more audience.

In early experience with partners including The Christian Science Monitor and Agence France-Presse, Pettitt discovered two surprising facts about embedding: First, he found that the overlap in audience between a creator’s and an embedder’s sites generally ran between 2 and 5 percent. That is to say, the embedders brought a mostly new audience to the creator’s content. Second, you might think that the click-through from an embedded article would be nil because the reader has been sated, having consumed the entire piece. Instead, Pettitt found that click-through ran amazingly high: 5 to 7 percent — and these were highly qualified clicks of people who knew what they were going to get on the other side of a link, not just drive-bys from search engines or Facebook. In New Jersey, the News Commons used Repost as the basis of a content- and audience-sharing network among dozens of sites big and small in the state’s new ecosystem. The big site, NJ.com, brought new and sizable audience to smaller sites’ content — for example, the government reporting of NJ Spotlight. NJ.com also made its articles available for smaller sites to use. Each creator’s ads traveled with its content — though that wasn’t necessarily optimal, because an ad for a North Jersey hairdresser wouldn’t perform terribly well with South Jersey readers brought in through embedding. So my next ambition was to create an ad network to maximize the value of this traffic.

But then, in mid-2014, Repost shut down its service. So much for a happy ending to my quest for a network built on the value of the link economy. A key factor in its failure: Repost could find many sites willing and eager to make their content embeddable. It didn’t find enough sites to embed the content. As an evangelist for the link economy, I should have seen the problem sooner: We were still valuing the creation of content over the creation of audiences. Content makers fared well in the transactions Repost enabled: They got more audience for their content and ads, and more revenue as a result. But the embedders got nothing aside from the free use of content — content that was just a link away anyway. I now see that we should have arranged to pay the embedders a share of the revenue, thus valuing their creation of audiences. My duh. There’s a happier ending, though: A competitor called iCopyright is providing New Jersey’s network with its embedder, repubHub, which also enables content sales. And I was oddly gratified to see some members of the ecosystem who had to be dragged into the embedding network screaming louder when it went away. The New Jersey model proves that embedding works as the basis of a network.

Our ultimate problem in media is that we do not have sufficient technical and legal frameworks for alternate business models. Copyright is built for one model: the Gutenberg-era notion that creativity equals content that can be bought and sold as intellectual property. What of the other models the internet now enables? I have been part of a project at the World Economic Forum that has been seeking to update our understanding of how to support creativity and to move past the bitter and unproductive fight over copyright and the net. That fight played itself out in the battle that defeated SOPA and PIPA — proposed laws meant to punish copyright violators online — as a war of Northern California vs. Southern California, Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood. Hollywood’s side: People who download our content without buying it or who remix it without our permission — and the platforms that facilitate these behaviors — are stealing from us and must be stopped and punished. Silicon Valley’s: Those people are your fans who are bringing value to you by sending you audiences and by contributing their creativity, and you’d be wise to build your businesses around making it easier, not harder, for them to get and share your content when and how they want it. Around and around this argument has gone — like the fight over paywalls — arriving nowhere. It has been a clash of eras, of worldviews and economies.

The Forum stepped in to convene a series of discussions in New York, London, Djakarta, San Francisco, and Davos (some of which I moderated) to try to get a diverse set of constituents — creators, publishers, studios, platforms, technologists, lawyers, academics, and government officials — to break the rancorous deadlock of the copyright fight and find common ground to move forward. It informed these discussions with research on audience behaviors and attitudes in the U.K. and Indonesia as study markets, exposing widely divergent views and norms. For example, when given the statement “anything I download from the internet should be free,” only 17 percent in the U.K. agreed but 54 percent in Indonesia agreed. To my surprise, the discussions have made progress. In private, media moguls would concede that copyright was outmoded and technologists would admit that their systems were inadequate. Together, they heard creative artists describe new models they used to support themselves, some wanting their work to spread widely so they could sell tickets to events, find patrons to volunteer support, or gather data about their fans and their behavior to understand them better and build richer relationships with them. And so, we came to agree that we need new technological and legal frameworks flexible enough to enable multiple models to support creativity.

I call this creditright. We need a means to attach credit to content for those who contribute value to it so that each constituent has the opportunity to negotiate and extract value along the chain, so that each can gain permission to take part in the chain, and so that behaviors that benefit others in the chain can be rewarded and encouraged. A scenario from outside news: Imagine you are a songwriter. You hear a street poet and her words inspire you to write a song about her, quoting her in the piece. You go to a crowdfunding platform — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Patreon — to raise money for you to go into the studio and perform and distribute your song. Another songwriter comes along and remixes it, making a new version and also sampling from others’ songs. Both end up on YouTube and Soundcloud, on iTunes and Google Play. Audience members discover and share the songs. A particularly popular artist shares the remixed version on Twitter and Facebook and it explodes. A label has one of its stars record it. The star appears on TV performing it. A movie studio includes that song in a soundtrack. There are many constituents in that process: the subject, the songwriter, the patrons, the fans, the remixer, the distributor, the label, the star, the show, the studio, and the platforms. Each contributed value. Each may want to recognize value — but not all will want cash. There are other currencies in play: The poet may want credit and fame; the songwriter may want to sell concert tickets; the patrons may want social capital for discovering and supporting a new artist; the remixer may want permission to remix; the platforms may want a cut of sales or of subscription revenue; the show may want audience and advertising; the studio will want a return on its investment and risk. If we transferred this scenario to news, a publisher may want data about users’ interests and behaviors from others in a chain of links to better serve them with more relevant content and to receive greater engagement in return. The publisher may want demographic data about users to serve them more valuable advertising. Or the publisher may want to reward some contributors to a collaborative project for their work and others for their recommendations and promotion.

German news publishers have fought Google in courts and legislatures as well as media and political forums, seeking a share of Google’s revenue in the belief that Google steals their content when it quotes from them in the listings it uses to send publishers billions of clicks a month. Relying on on copyright, they lobbied government to enact a new law — a Leistungsschutzrecht or ancillary copyright — to demand payment. I have argued with these publishers that Google will not — and should not — pay them. Google is creating value for them with the audience it sends their way. Instead, I’ve suggested they would be wiser to seek another currency from Google: data about the users, helping build better services for readers and advertisers and thus better businesses. I also fear that the Germans — and Spanish politicians who proposed a law to in essence tax links — will undermine the very essence of the web just to protect entrenched, legacy institutions.

What system will do all that we need in a new universe of digital creativity? We will need a way to attach metadata to content, recording and revealing its source and the contributions of others in the chain of continuing creation and distribution. We need a marketplace to measure and value their contributions and a means to negotiate rewards and permissions. We need payment structures to handle multiple currencies: data as well as money. And we need a legal framework to allow the flexible exploration of new models, some of which we cannot yet imagine. It so happens that I am writing this on the plane as I head to moderate another meeting the Forum has convened in San Francisco to discuss these questions. We won’t solve these problems and design these systems in an hour. It took more than 150 years after the invention of the press before the Statute of Anne — that is, copyright — was enacted. At that time some governments awarded licenses to sanctioned monopolies for the right to use the press in an attempt to limit publishing’s power and disruption. It took many more years for society to develop principles of free speech to balance the economic and political interests of those who would attempt to control a new tool of speech. And, of course, even with laws governing copyright, fair use, fair comment, censorship, and speech, we are still fighting over all these issues. As Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig has said, the right to fair use is the right to hire a copyright attorney.

What this process needs is first the willingness to question our Gutenberg-age models and assumptions, valuing not just content as a commodity that fills publications but also valuing the people who contribute to a creative process and the gathering of those people, formerly known as an audience. Second, it requires discussion, such as those organized and informed by the World Economic Forum, which is uniquely suited to convene many constituents to serious consideration of new opportunities. And finally, it demands experiments, such as John Pettitt’s Repost.us. Pettitt did a great job thinking through a myriad of copyright issues (e.g., whether a news site had the right to redistribute a wire photo that accompanied a story) and technical issues (e.g., how to make an embedded article look compatible with the embedder’s site). But he may not have grappled sufficiently with the human matter of motivating people to embed others’ content (that is, paying them). Nonetheless, Pettitt contributed valuable ideas, data, and lessons to the process of rethinking the notions of content, copyright, and intellectual property.

The link — the insight of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Gutenberg of our age — changes media at such an atomic level that it is impossible to believe we can continue to operate under old business models, old legal frameworks, old metrics, and old technologies. We must reimagine the business of media and news from the first penny, asking where value is created, who contributes to it, where it resides, and how to extract it. Creditright is one model for this reimagining. It is hardly a unified theory. And it would be foolhardy to think that we know enough yet to be able to develop complete theories. This is why I started this essay urging us all to rethink the relationships journalists and media have with the public they serve in the age of the link. It is why I next challenged us to rethink the possible forms of the services we provide. Only then, after much exploration and experimentation, can we discover our business models. I suggest we start not by following the money but by following the value. Thus, we need new measures of value.


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