A business model for Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization aimed  to promote the CC licenses around the world, thus generating positive awareness and impact on the global issue of knowledge share. Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons, reflects this vision in an interview for TechRadar. This interview got my attention, and triggered this post.

How to build a good business model for non-profit organizations supporting open movements(*)?

() [Note: in the absence of a better term, I’ve been using *open movements to encompass all sort of initiatives articulated around collaborative communities, open to the contribution of any person, pursuing the creation of physical or digital works and knowledge compliant with the definition of free cultural works. For instance, this includes Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS), as well as creative works (text, images, audio, video, etc.) released under a free license].

It may sound strange that I want to write about a business model for a

non-profit organization. However, that  a “non-profit organization” is not aimed to distribute their surplus among owners or shareholders does not mean that they do not seek for optimizing their revenues, leverage the impact on their target market and ensure future sustainability of the organization and its sponsored projects. Some examples are the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, the Apache Software Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, the GNOME Foundation or the Wikimedia Foundation.

Every organization in the above list has either a clear set of projects to take care of  (e.g. Apache, Mozilla, GNOME, WMF) or a sharp set of concrete services to offer (e.g. EFF, FSF). Business models have been already studied to some extent in open source software. As Carlo Daffara explains in his blog, the general basis of OSS business models is property and efficiency. However, in the case of open movements their outcomes are free cultural works, sometimes including copyleft clauses. Therefore, property in not usually an asset is this more general context.

Creative Commons has their CC licenses, and a well-defined, global objective to appeal their donors for funds: supporting knowledge share. Despite that, Ito declares that:

“It would be great to have a revenue stream, because personally going around and doing fundraising every year is a lot of work”

Indeed, fundraising is a lot of work. But sometimes, it can be easier to achieve good results  if the added value is a tangible benefit. And it is now when a good business model comes into place.

CC logo

By Yohei Yamashita (CC-BY 2.0)

Consider for a moment the business model of some of the other non-profit organizations. Most of them (if not all) have a set of products or added-value services to offer to their audience. My colleague Dirk Riehle shows this model clearly in his article “The Economic Case for Open Source Foundations”. Every supporter and every donor of the organization will better embrace their cause if, in addition to ethical and social values, there is a tangible outcome with positive influence on their own strategy and their market. Examples are numerous companies that collaborate to support Apache projects to commoditize baseline Internet applications like the Apache web server, based on open standards. Companies and individuals support Mozilla Foundation to benefit from libre software products (like Firefox or Thunderbird) based again on open standards, with better features, stability and security. Finally, we have companies like RedHat supporting a common desktop environment like GNOME, which is a basic architectural component of their enterprise products. The legion of WMF donors contribute for similar reasons. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons and other projects supported by WMF provides them content and services attractive for them (free encyclopedia, free multimedia content), besides the ethical goal of sharing knowledge with the whole society.

What does Creative Commons offer? Legal assessment? No. Added-value services to track free content? No. They just offer legal tools to share knowledge adequately. In other words: the licenses. That’s it. Is it valuable? Well, yes of course! Could they do it better? I really think so.

Going back to Mr Ito interview, he talks about the efforts to create an easy way to tag Internet content published under a CC license. Even more important is that this information should be machine readable, so it could be easy to search for free cultural works, and facilitate proper attribution to original authors. The RDF standard can be the solution to export this information. But we don’t have a revenue model yet, right?

I think the revenue model is right there, but Creative Commons has to make a clearer added-value offer. The idea of facilitating free content tracking is terrific. So, what’s the service? Obviously, to create a centralize resource to enable accurate search for free content. I’m sorry to say that Google, Yahoo (a bit better thanks to Flickr) and other search engines fall short when it comes to search for free content in the Internet. Specially, when I want a concrete license or, better, when I specifically want to avoid certain clauses (like Non-Commercial).

Wait a minute. Doesn’t Wikimedia Commons provide one of the biggest archives of free cultural works already? Definitely. But I’m not talking about hosting the content. I’m referring to archiving references to the content. The first approach would be something similar to Wikimedia Commons, or Internet Archive. The second is a service to ease search procedures. Of course, you also need resources. But much less storage capacity than following the first approach.

Likewise, once Creative Commons is able to consolidate an archive of references to free cultural works, they can also offer a broader and more comprehensive set of visualizations and metrics than they offer today. In turn, this will lead to a better understanding of the widespread success of knowledge share, providing better (empirical) arguments to attract a large number of donors to the cause. In addition, not only creators but also *users of free cultural works *(a broader audience) would have a direct reason to contribute and donate. The better the archive, the easier the search for the content we need, so we support the improvement of the archive.

The revenue cycle is thus complete.