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The Challenges of Licensing Content

Over the years, we’ve worked with a number of clients who license content from others — from other websites, from magazines, from newspapers, from bloggers, from freelance writers — and many of our clients go into the licensing process with two assumptions:

In our experience, neither assumption is true in most cases. While I wasn’t working with licensing clients before the mid-1990s, I do think both of these assumptions are driven by the new realities of business in the Internet age.

People can see with their own eyes that many, many more people can create content for public consumption, far easier and cheaper than they could in the past. From that perspective, the idea that content will be cheap makes some logical sense.

We’ve had more than one client say to us, “Content is a commodity.” What they mean by that is that they believe content is freely available, interchangeable, and cheap.

Let’s be clear on one thing up front: YES, no matter who you are or what you’re talking about, you CAN find cheap content related to your topic. People ARE posting content that they will license to you for free or cheaply. Check YouTube, Flickr, blogs that offer RSS feeds — it’s most certainly there.

But what I haven’t mentioned yet are the unspoken assumptions that people also bring to the licensing process:

Wow. What you may not realize before you license content is that these unspoken assumptions contradict your spoken desires of cheap, easy content.

Colin Harman’s Venn diagram of Fast-Cheap-Good made the rounds a few months ago. He’s talking about web design in the graphic, but similar economic principles apply to many things, including content. You get to pick two — fast and cheap, cheap and good, good and fast — but the three never intersect in reality. In the content world, if you want good and cheap, it’s going to take a long time and require an unplanned expense: Your time, your staff’s time or your vendor’s time. Thus eliminating the “cheap” part of the equation anyway.

The part of this discussion that continues to surprise me is how many organizations are creating great content that they COULD license, but they don’t. There are some major publishers with solid product who don’t see licensing as a revenue model, and it’s maddening as a person who’s trying to broker a deal when you can SEE the good stuff but can’t get it. The challenge is almost always technology in the end, not the business model — they haven’t invested in the technology that would make the business model work, so when I call, they are too far away technically to make a deal viable. As structured content continues to evolve, this should change, but we start with the assumption that everyone is on a legacy, non-interoperable system, and it makes for less disappointment and some occasional delight.

I hope I don’t sound like Debbie Downer — licensing content is often a good answer to a business need. But I do want to share our experience, both to help you better understand the realities of licensing content, and to add my voice to those who continue to push for interoperable standards. Licensing isn’t easy, and it isn’t often cheap. These realities are driving more people to create their own content, and that’s often what we advise our clients to do. Either way you go, let us know if we can help. We’ve been there.


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