Why content sharing might just be good for business.

Share by Got Credit, licensed CC BY 2.0, available on Flickr.

A presentation-turned-blog post designed to introduce businesses to Creative Commons.

Sharing is fundamental. We start learning how and why to share before we are even old enough to talk. But in today’s world, it’s hard to know what sharing means. Think Uber, airbnb, or even Facebook.

This is about sharing information, ideas, or creative works (i.e. “content”), specifically through the Internet or digital technology. Nearly every business peddles in content in some way, shape, or form. Maybe you’re in the publishing industry and content is literally your product. Maybe you’re a digital strategist, and you publish content to generate publicity. Or maybe you’re a platform that hosts content others create. In all of these cases, it’s important to think strategically about sharing content.

At its most basic level, sharing content means the opposite of keeping it private. But even sharing content can mean a lot of things. So let’s start by defining four different types of content sharing.

Pay to view sharing is making content available to paying customers. (e.g., paywalls)

Read only sharing is granting free access to read content. (for the vast majority of content published, this is the type of sharing involved)

Copy only sharing is giving other people the right to actually move and share you content around the web.

Remix sharing means giving other people rights to remix and build upon your content.

The first two types of sharing above are certainly “sharing” in the sense that they involve making content publicly available in some way. But when I talk about content sharing, I mean one of these last two types of sharing: granting people actual rights to reuse — as opposed to just look at or listen to — your stuff. This is where content sharing becomes interactive and thus, more meaningful. My not-so-secret agenda is to get you thinking about how you might leverage meaningful content sharing to serve your business.

This little thing called the Internet: our new reality.

Before we get into the how, we first have to start with the why. I’m not going to try to address all the ways the Internet has changed life as we know it. Instead, I just need to point out three painfully obvious, wholly unoriginal truths that affect when and why we share content.

1. The Internet puts the world’s information at our fingertips.

Information is abundant. There is an unfathomable amount of information and creative works online. Most of it is free. (see e.g., Free by Chris Anderson)

2. The Internet is literally a copying machine.

The Internet makes it brain-numbingly easy to copy and share content. This means it is virtually impossible to lock up content you make available. For businesses with high-demand content like Hollywood that have historically been charging people to gain access to their content, this is a monumental shift. No matter how hard they try to prevent it, people are finding ways to get free copies of their works. (see e.g., Information Doesn’t Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow)

3. The Internet makes it incredibly easy for people to participate in culture.

People are producing more creative works than ever before. People are interacting with each other and with companies in unprecedented ways. Consumers do a lot more than just consume. (see e.g., pretty much every book about the Internet in the last 15 years)

What these changes mean for content sharing in business.

Sometimes what is obvious can also be subversive. These next five ideas about content sharing in the digital age are exactly that. Each is tied to a particular one of the categories of sharing described above.

(1) Re: pay-to-view sharing: It is harder than ever before to get people to pay for content.

If you charge for content, you’re putting yourself at a serious competitive disadvantage. We are all inundated with information online, and it’s virtually all free. As Chris Anderson so adeptly argued in his 2009 book, it’s hard to compete with free no matter who you are. If you do charge for content, make sure you aren’t trying to get people to buy something they could easily get for free. You have to provide significant value above and beyond what is available for free.

(2) Re: read-only sharing: Copying is inevitable, so pick your battles.

You can spend a lot of time and resources chasing your content around the web. Figure out where the value really lives in what you do, and let everything else go.

(3) Re: copy-only sharing: In this world of information overload, more eyeballs might be just what you want.

I lied earlier; copying is only inevitable if you’re good. You can only hope you get noticed enough to be copied. You are competing for attention against more sources than ever before in human history — professional and amateur. Rather than fighting it, use the world’s “copying machine” (i.e. the Internet) to your advantage by enabling your content to travel as far and wide around the web as possible.

(4) Re: remixable sharing: Opening up your content can help you enable new levels of customer engagement.

You have the opportunity to interact with your customers in unprecedented ways. Consumers expect this now. The businesses who get this and stop treating customers like “the audience” are the ones who will thrive. By empowering your customers as co-creators, you can build community around your company.

(5) Re: remixable sharing: Allowing others to modify your content can make you better at what you do.

Tap into your customers as a resource —they can help you improve what you do.

How to share: copyright and Creative Commons

I’m sad to say you can’t fully understand content sharing without a basic understanding of copyright law.

Copyright grants exclusive rights to authors of original works. It covers nearly everything you create, and it essentially lasts forever. Most importantly, it is granted automatically. As soon as you type the words or record the video, you have a copyright in your work that lasts your entire life plus an additional 70 years. Unless you say differently, no one can copy or adapt your work without your permission. This is why I said earlier that nearly everything published online falls into the read-only category of sharing. It happens by default, so a huge amount of it is unintentional.

In short, copyright covers nearly everything we create. Nearly everything we do with digital technology involves making a copy. This means copyright regulates nearly everything we do online.

Creative Commons (“CC”) was created to address this problem. The idea was instead of “all rights reserved” under copyright, Creative Commons would give copyright owners a “some rights reserved” alternative. This is done with free, standardized licenses that grant the public permission to use your work without asking, as long as they comply with certain conditions. There are six options of CC licenses, ranging from a license that allows people to share only identical copies of your work for noncommercial purposes to a license that allows people to do anything with your work — including commercializing it — as long as they give you credit. There are various flavors in between. Viewed in relation to the types of sharing I described earlier, CC licenses enable various forms of copy-only and remix sharing. This is sharing under copyright law.

In short, Creative Commons enables meaningful sharing in a simple, standardized way. It seems to be working. In 2015, we will see more than 1 billion Creative Commons licensed works online.

What sharing looks like: CC in the wild

Creative Commons licenses can be used for anything that warrants copyright protection, with the exception of software. Because of this wide range of applications, CC licensing can look very different depending on how it is used. But there are some common themes and strategies, beginning with the most common motivation for using CC licensing.

CC for newbies: CC licensing as a publicity vehicle.

At its most basic level, a CC license is a way to move content around the web legally. The CC icon is a universal symbol for sharing, so attaching a CC license to your work signals that you want your content to be shared. As it is shared, your name and website stay connected to the work because every CC license requires reusers to give credit to the original author and link back to the source of the work.

From a public relations standpoint, enabling your work to travel beyond where it is originally posted can be pragmatic. It goes back to an earlier point about picking your battles and being strategic about what you try to restrict — if you can’t charge for your content, why not take advantage of the benefits of the Internet by enabling it to spread? This is the same sort of motivation that pushes tech companies to provide services like gmail or LinkedIn for free. It’s called the “max strategy,” and it means you want as many eyeballs (or users) as possible. Leveraging that large audience or customer base, you can make money in other ways.

This concept translates to nearly every business where content can be used for publicity. A social media strategist publishes advice on a blog; a clothing retailer posts pictures of models wearing her newest stock. When these things move around the web under a CC license, it is essentially free publicity.

This sort of free publicity can be much more disruptive if content is your product. For example, musicians historically made money by charging for their music, so this shift requires a change to the entire business model. Rather than selling the product and fighting against the Internet, you start giving it away and encouraging people to share it. Then you find another way to make money, like taking advantage of your larger audiences to charge more for live performances. I think of it as a way of embracing the Internet. Rather than sitting in your little corner of the web gripping your content, you actually let it go and use the Internet (and digital copying) to your advantage.

This type of sharing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can use a Creative Commons license for some content to get your name out there and get noticed, and then reserve your rights to other content. This is another riff on a theme of Chris Anderson’s Free because it’s a version of giving away something you used to sell in order to entice new customers. CC licensing just takes the concept of “Free” a bit further by not only giving free access to your content, but also enabling people to share it.

Sharing for the sake of publicity also works when you are providing a platform for other people’s content. The best example of this is Flickr. By enabling its users to apply CC licenses to their images, Flickr has become the single largest repository of CC-licensed images in the world. This means Flickr images are used all over the web. The CC license requires a link back to the source of the image, which brings people to Flickr. This gets their brand in front of more people through a huge variety of sources online. In other words, it’s free publicity.

Just because you apply a CC license to your work doesn’t mean it will go viral. But applying a CC license is also a symbol that you “get the Internet.” This sort of symbolic gesture can be meaningful, particularly within fields where your audience or customers know something about copyright and digital technology. I think of sites like boingboing falling into this category. The fact that their articles might sometimes move around the web to other sites is an added bonus, but I’m guessing their application of CC licensing was primarily a vote for sharing.

Advanced CC licensing: sharing with purpose

Creative Commons licensing can enable much more than just movement of your content around the web for publicity purposes. These more meaningful benefits happen when sharing through CC is part of a larger shift in the way you do business.

CC licensing to build community

The simple act of sharing builds community and gains advocates for your brand because it avoids putting you in an adversarial position with the people who are most interested in our work. They want to copy and share your stuff, and you want them to, too. Applying a CC license that allows remix can take that one step further. By encouraging others to co-create with you, you allow them to contribute to whatever it is you do. This enables you to have the two-way relationship with your customers that they have come to expect. This sort of collaboration builds loyalty and trust.

This same idea of community-building works when you host content created by others. If that content is under a CC license that allows remix, it builds in an interactive community of sharing and co-production on your platform.

CC licensing to leverage outside ideas

Sharing with others makes it more likely they will share back with you. We learned that one when we were in preschool, but it still applies. When you make your content available for reuse, you may end up finding new partners and collaborators, even in unexpected places. This is the “virtuous circle” enabled by sharing content.

Sharing your content in a way that allows remix allows you to learn from the way your content is improved by others. This can help you make your products better by harnessing the talents of people outside the organization. No matter what the business or organization, the powers of groupthink and echo chambers are strong. When you open up the opportunity for outside voices to contribute to what you’re doing, you get fresh ideas. This is a major lesson from the free software movement. Your customers have valuable insights — learn from them.

CC licensing for the social good

In many contexts, allowing the public to reuse your content can have a real social benefit. This is particularly the case in fields like education and science, but nearly any business that opens up what they are doing to enable access and participation by the public can have an element of social good. This can give your business a higher purpose beyond just profit, which is motivating for your company internally and helps garner goodwill from the public. We’re seeing more and more companies that bridge this intersection between social enterprise and profit-making.

CC licensing to create a new kind of “open” company

When you grant the public permission to reuse and modify your content, you make your company vastly more open. You’re essentially bringing the public in to be a part of what you do. But working open is not just about sharing under copyright law. It is about transparency and creating a different kind of work culture, both within your organization and for those looking in. Think about what else you could share, or even consider making sharing your default. This helps give your company a voice and presence online, but more significantly, it builds trust and community.

What real sharing looks like

Examples of these more advanced uses of CC licensing span the full spectrum, but I would be remiss if didn’t talk about what is arguably CC’s biggest success story — Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation hits every single one of these benefits of meaningful sharing.

Everything on Wikipedia is available under a CC license. If you contribute to an article, you agree to CC license your contributions. The particular license is the Attribution-ShareAlike license, which means everyone can reuse the content for any purpose (including for commercial purposes) but they have to give back what they create by applying the same CC license to the new thing. The result is not only the world’s biggest and most important encyclopedia, but also a vibrant community around the globe. The fact that the content is constantly being adapted by anyone who wants to make a change is what makes Wikipedia better than any other encyclopedia that has ever been created. The Wikimedia Foundation also strives to work as an open organization, and they have a powerful social good component to what they do. Not everyone can create the next Wikipedia, but they have built a hugely successful product using CC licensing, instilled with all of the values that make sharing so meaningful. There are lots of lessons to be learned from their example.

This is the future

This just scratches the surface of the possibilities connected to meaningful sharing. I’m surely biased because of where I sit, but I honestly believe this is the future. In many cases, this future won’t look much different. It will simply mean finding ways to better leverage the sharing power of the Internet. But in other cases, it will be transformative. Creators and companies will find new business models built around collaboration, community, and social good. It’s a future I’m thrilled to help build.

Presentation given at EntreFEST in Iowa City, May 2015.