The Role of Content Brokers in the Era of Free Content

Draft June 9, 2006; very lightly revised, October 2006

I. The problem of funding content

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 plentiful. 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 distribution networks. The Internet 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 free.

So, while the traditional role of publishers as talk brokers may never completely go away, nearly everyone agrees that it is under an increasing threat. 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 information. If it succeeds, whither the traditional talk broker role of publishers?

III. A new model of publishing brokerage

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 performed. 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. If you are a communicator or artist, free content is (as you probably already know) in your future, like it or not. It might not all be free, but a lot more of it will be than is now the case. This will 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 hands.

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. It’s not 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. Besides, there are already examples of this sort of thing in existence (such as Google Answers).

Since first drafting this essay, a promising new effort in this direction came to light: Jay Rosen’s 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). The 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 artists. 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. What 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 scale?

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 brokerage scenarios

  • A visual artist wants to use an obscure, more or less worthless old film that isn’t yet in the public domain. He wants 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.
  • Cleveland 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. The 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 writers. Teenagers around the world can use a new professionally-written text for free.
  • A 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 musicians. 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.
  • Britney 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 made. The broker then publicizes the effort, saying that your credit card won’t be charged until the required amount is reached. When it is reached, 24 hours later, the song plays constantly everywhere. Variant: 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’!”
  • The 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.)
  • I 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 anonymous donor.
  • A major benefactor loves the idea of free, collaboratively-developed, up-to-date information–but wants the world to have something more authoritative than Wikipedia. He 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.
  • A 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.) The 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 involved.

V. The ideal content brokerage system?

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 managed. 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.

(1) Presumably, 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. Surely, 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 professionally.

(2) A “full-service” content brokerage would employ people who can manage all different kinds of content requests. 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.

(3) The job of publisher would no doubt change considerably. Some jobs might be eliminated; new jobs would be created. 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.

(4) Content 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. Much work remains to be done in this direction.

(5) The 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 itself. 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.

(6) Editorial decisions as to whom to award contracts should be constrained by enforceable codes of ethics. Decisionmaking should be transparent, well-documented, and easily reviewable (although not necessarily public).

(7) Communicators 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 way “frozen.” Contracts should make clear exactly how and under what circumstances a buyer may ask for his money back.

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. The 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 overhead. (O’Reilly has already done something vaguely similar with its Open Books initiative.) If no one bites, so much the worse for this idea. But I 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 polite.

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. If it works in general, it will work in a thousand different ways.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started,,,, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

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