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Content Curation and the end of Intellectual Property

The past couple of years I’ve been blessed to get to go to Brussels for Thanksgiving and honored to meet with some of the world’s foremost leaders, thinkers, and even trouble-makers in the area of education. The European Union sponsors a wonderful conference on Media and Learning – which is genuinely filled with amazing attendees and speakers and always provides a great opportunity to enjoy great company and sensational food in an extraordinary city.

This year I was a little nervous about my presentation. I wanted to explore some time-honored principles in education and eLearning, and challenge the notion that our traditional beliefs no longer hold true. I called this session Sacred Cows in eLearning and there was one notion in particular I worried might shock and upset people in the room. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my ‘radical’ suggestion was met with nodding heads and agreement in much larger numbers than I’d ever anticipated.

My thoughts were on the growing issues people are having with Intellectual Property (IP) and the apparently declining importance of copyright law. The perceived problem is that more people than ever are making more media than ever, with less regard than ever for who owns what.

Tradition and most law says that if you are going to use some image, sound or video in your media – you have to purchase the legal right to use that element. But people creating social media on the Internet most often don’t do things like purchase licensing rights. It wouldn’t be practical for them to do so if they wanted to. How much should one pay for the rights to use a pop song as the background for a home slide show? What music organization wants to handle the request for 1.5 million 11 cent licensing deals? If the same person plays the music live over the sound system from their mp3 collection while the slides play, is that technically a requirement for a public performance license? What if your mp3 player is too loud on the bus or the beach? There isn’t a good answer to questions like these, and new outlets for publishing aggregated media projects are popping up virtually every day.

In this post I will share my thoughts on the untidy relationship between content curation (which we can think of as the will of the people to express creativity, collect and share knowledge and to create derivative and dependent new knowledge, art and inventions) and Intellectual Property Rights (which we can think of as the will of businesses and individuals to make a profit from the bits of knowledge, art and invention that they’ve already created.) I love this topic because it cuts to the core of much of the confusion over social media, and it deeply impacts learning because for a long time we’ve placed a huge importance in connecting ideas to their source.

Now lately we’ve been hearing a growing amount of buzz on the topic of content curation. Content curation isn’t really a terribly new idea. Its core concept is that live people (or perhaps eventually super-intelligent artificial software agents) will cultivate related information into conveniently packaged, referenced and linked little modules in order to ease the pain of information overload. One of the first and most important ways information overload came to our collective attention was when Vannevar Bush published an article in the Atlantic Monthly Journal (1945.) Bush’s article “As We May Think” investigated the notion that we had reached an age when so much information was being published so quickly that coordinating ideas was nearly impossible (and he said that in 1945.)

Bush sounded a clarion call for content curation – or content aggregation in his 1945 article when he called for ‘trails’ to be created associating ideas with other ideas via visible trails created by the users. His core argument was that losing information was an unacceptable side effect of rigid organization techniques and he went on to argue for a way to better organize and curate threads of linked ideas in order to help facilitate better sharing of information based on 1945 technology. It can’t be any surprise that in the wake of the Internet and social media, people are reconsidering how content aggregation can and should be done. New services like Memo-Lane,, Redux & as well as a host of others are bringing us new ways to thread together much of the ideas and information that is available. Likewise, crowd-sourced aggregation sites like Wikipedia, DeviantArt, and facebook are providing unprecedented access to publically curated information.

But even as we stride boldly into these new forms of communication, we find a mine field of issues arising regarding the ownership of intellectual property – and of ideas. Consider something as simple as an Internet meme. Who owns a given meme? Check out for examples of the latest Internet and social media memes. These little kernels of comedy, Truth, wisdom, philosophy etc. migrate their way through popular culture at light speed. The spread like a virus, and in general you’ll probably realize that you’ve already seen the memes you find at Know Your Meme, at least some of them. This is because they are already very popular and have travelled far and wide in order to reach the status of meme. However; a meme by definition, is snatched up in infinite variety. It is retooled, re-engineered. It is marketed, commoditized, mocked and mirrored. The creator is often impossible to determine, and the meme itself becomes popular so quickly it’s virtually impossible to control. In fact, a variation of the original idea may well be the thing that took off as a meme. So how does anyone identify who owns the intellectual property of a meme? Are those who spread the meme responsible to pay license fees, or should the originator pay them for having helped in its propagation? The more objectively you look at each step the more the notion of intellectual property rights seem to fall apart.

Consider for example my favorite little Content Curation / Aggregation application for eLearning; eLearning Today with Adobe Captivate. I started the eLearning today site about a year ago. I was extremely interested to see how much dynamic control I could get over its daily articles. It wasn’t easy. I created an absurd collection of Twitter #hashtag searches, OR statements, AND statements etc. If I could have broken out conditionals in a search field I’d certainly have been tempted to do so. I tested several variations until I felt that the paper was consistently delivering to me virtually every important headline in eLearning twice a day. Now the challenge. Is that my paper? I didn’t write the software that collects the content and displays it. I didn’t write the tens of thousands of articles that have appeared in it. I didn’t create the ads nor do I even see every edition that is published. That said, it wouldn’t exist without me. I did create the search algorithm, I did give it a name and a description, and I do actively promote its readership. It would be easy to compare me to a small journalist who publishes syndicated columns. But unlike the small journalist, I don’t pay for the columns. When people find that my paper is boosting their readership they often thank me. Nobody has ever asked me for a payment. Who then owns this content? Why is it okay to aggregate and display it in this manner? Is the link-back to the source sufficient credit to the original owner? Have you ever followed one of those links only to find that the source is another content aggregation site?

Without question there are a lot of uncertainties in regard to the dissemination of intellectual property via the Internet and social media streams. What seems clear is that the models of IP that applied to printed and early electronic media were effective tools when those media were tangible commodities. In a landscape of social media, where ideas, clips, blurbs and pics are tiny blips in the rapidly flowing river of user generated media – the old notions of IP are looking extremely antiquated. One way to help understand the distinction is found in the very language that we use to describe the Internet phenomena versus the social media phenomena. We call the Internet a web, but we call social media a stream. Even intuitively we seem to recognize that the volume of the stream is unending, flowing, dynamic and while all the parts are connected – it is not fixed or static in any way.
Marshal MacLuhan famously stated, the medium is the message. But in that presentation in Brussels I inverted MacLuhan’s statement. In the wake of social media in a dynamic, rushing every changing stream of interconnected memes, The message is the medium. MacLuhan’s point was that the medium shapes and influences the way the message is received. My point (which has really been previously made by Malcom Gladwell and Richard Dawkins) is that the message itself has become the medium – it is at once container, channel and content. It is self-replicating and travels in a self-contained (or at least self-referential) package, spreading in all directions.

So if we accept that the natural inversion of social / user generated media and current technology is that the message is self-replicating and spreads virally, should our notions of ownership change? It’s a significant question. We could for example (rather than looking to penalize people for sharing ideas and information) look for a way to embed ownership into digital objects. This kind of approach however has never been very popular. People tend to prefer privacy, and trends like the recent popularity of HTML5 continue a trend that pushes away digital rights management in favor of ubiquity and anonymity.
We could abandon notions of copyright – accept that enforcing legal ownership of ideas in the age of the digital river is unenforceable. These ideas were tickled again recently as SOPA and PIPA legislation made their way to the public eye in the US, and will no doubt become a progressively hotter and hotter topic as the traditions of publishing birthed from hundreds of years of print and media publication slowly gasp and drown in a sea of constant infringement and abuse.

Why would I suggest such a crazy notion? Well the rationale is actually quite simple. You see copying things has never been all that clear a cause for violation of rights to begin with, (for example sampling or copying a section of something often yields exemption, and most people are aware of exemptions commonly granted for humor or sarcasm) but the bigger issue with digital duplicates is that they are free or nearly free, can be replicated without degeneration or deviation, and that they can propagate and spread so quickly that determination of the original source is often impossible.

Steven Berlin Johnson describes some of this notion in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” as he explains his belief that ideas themselves are often more the logical cumulative thought of an era, coming more from the collective consciousness of many than from any individual. The sudden ability of digital media to facilitate infinite replication, sampling, variation and repetition of images, sounds, text and ideas creates a landscape which is no longer conducive to enforcement of the rules of intellectual property or copyright.

Likewise Sir Ken Robinson points to collaboration as central to modern education. Robinson isn’t alone, those behind 21st Century education Skills initiatives have clearly identified collaboration as among the most central required skills. Robinson famously points out that in schools we call coordination, cooperation and knowledge sharing ‘cheating’ – while in the workplace we call them collaboration.

If we understand that media sharing is part of a natural process of creativity, is it appropriate for us to guard so zealously the IP rights of the originator? If as Berlin-Johnson suggests, ideas belong to an era – to a place and time as much as they do to any individual, can we really assign ownership to individuals? If we agree that content curation and aggregation is fundamentally in the interest of all people, then have we reached an impasse in our quest to facilitate monetization of Intellectual Property? At least in the west, monetization provides the incentive for action.

Ultimately my point is this; copyright laws and expectations must evolve dramatically to recognize and embrace the instant replication and viral spread of digital media messages if the monetization of intellectual property is going to continue as a reasonable form of revenue generation. It seems therefore logical that efforts to attach meta-data to elements of digital media is the most appropriate way to ensure ownership is fairly represented.

I recall long ago reading an interesting treatment of this question by Peter Small in his book Magical A-Life Avatars; A new paradigm for the Internet.(Manning, 1998.) In the book Peter describes potential revenue models for compensation of content creators via micro-payments. While I doubt we’ll see a lot of traction for this idea, it does put me in mind of gamification principles. Could we for example begin to see content curation technologies that use gamification principles along with meta-data tagging that identify the credibility, popularity, sincerity etc. of a given data object.

Ironically Karl Kapp, well known Gamification expert will be speaking on Wednesday of this week in one of our Adobe eLearning eSeminars. I’ll ask Karl his thoughts about the relationship of Gamification and Intellectual Property as well as a host of other things. I hope you’ll join us.

As always please feel free to comment and ask questions below. We love hearing from you and I firmly believe that the information and ideas found among everyone are where the real brilliance is – so I hope you’ll share your wisdom with us.

13 Responses

  1. Hey, is it alright if I just take another 10 copies of the awesome eLearning suite 2.5 to top-up the licenses I’ve already paid for? All in the name of sharing… after all “If we understand that media sharing is part of a natural process of creativity, is it appropriate for us to guard so zealously the IP rights of the originator? ”

    Thought not. Food for thought….

    • I wondered how long it would take for that question. Smiles. In the first draft i actually included a long reflection on how this all relates to software and other IP. The connections are relevant, but in this case i’m focused more on the IP inherent in social media and messages rather than full work products. I think that distinction is logical as that’s how it’s often handled in law – for example a full film, or a full book for example. Of course people do pirate full copies of software – sometimes even ‘topping’ up off licenses and so on – i think that’s another example of where IP and copyright are critical issues. You’ll note for example that many software companies are moving to a subscription for that very reason. Thanks for the post Guy.

      • I see the point of both of you and would like to add a slight twist, take the photocopier example in real life. We use a photocopier to copy documents, which could be any thing. In our daily activity the document (content) in question is important or informative (which we believe are a good causes) we make copies with no guilt to share the info. But I can’t recall one signal instance when someone had a document to copy and had no access to a copier and thus found no guilt to borrow / snap one to produce his copies and share the info!
        I think software and digital services are tools – like the photocopier – and
        therefore has it’s own perceived IP, While content produced by these tools has a different perceived IP. We need to be aware and differentiate between types of IP specially in the new world of streams – as you pointed above. With social media, I believe that IP is more powerful and useful when it is crowed sourced and that different pieces of content are becoming a growing vocabulary that serves as the building pieces for new content and so on and that’s the real value of curated content – it’s creation is viral if one can say so. One example is a curator who delivers a concrete message by curating two opposed videos from Youtube with no more than a title for that comparison. Of course each video has its own IP, but none of the original authors had ever considered the other one, now the curator who juxtaposed them produced new value, a new IDEA that has its own IP! I believe this has to be honored and encouraged as far as the curator gives credit / reference to used content. If not doing so, then it is the role of curation tools creators – software and services – to make sure their tools keeps the references and tracks them because that will not only encourage curation and protect inherent IP, but those tracks and links are valuable in their own.

  2. Another related thought – yesterday I read that one of the East Coast College’s is now planning to deliver a 10,000$ college degree. ( Interestingly the students will apparently take courses from various open university online course offerings – including Stanford and Harvard, and then will take examinations at Excelsior. Is this yet another example of content aggregation? The university will offer courses its faculty did not produce?

    Here’s a nice summary of the phenomena from Margaret Wente.

  3. Thanks so much for publicly wrestling this issue, Allen. I’m torn myself — I earn my meager keep by the brute force of creating IP. I want to see myself and other creatives supported to continue taking risks — especially as our audience grows. On the other hand, I appreciate the value-added nature of content curation, and I enjoy conducting it myself.

    My own dream of a perfect world for content creators and users on the internets looks like this: Robust media meta-data, which includes embedded links to content creators, licensing info (both machine- and human-readable) and the capacity to analyze HTTP requests on that content. This would offer content creators a wide range of options on licensing, including a middle road between creative commons and traditional copyright.

    With my dream in place, a lot of my content would circulate with a “Robin Hood” style license. Example: usage is free for non-commercial use up to 5,000 impressions, editorial use (e.g., on a monetized editorial site) up to 1,000 impressions, commericial use up to 500 impressions. From there, a micropayment bill accrues with continued page views. I would happily yield a percentage of those earnings to agencies that provided analysis of content use and aggregation of micropayments.

    Sound complicated? No worse than the algorithms that drive online advertising and affiliate marketing schemes. The technology can be lifted from those industries (unless the IP’s tied up!).

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