Economies of the Commons 2: Paying the Costs of Making Things Free

International conference, seminar and public evening programs
Amsterdam & Hilversum
November 11 – 13, 2010

Conference report by Lotte Belice Baltussen and Wietske van den Heuvel

Economies of the Commons 2 is a critical examination of the economics of on-line public domain and open access resources of information, knowledge, and media (the ‘digital commons’). The past 10 years have seen the rise of a variety of such open content resources attracting millions of users, sometimes on a daily basis. The impact of projects such as Wikipedia, Images for the Future, and Europeana testify to the vibrancy of the new digital public domain. No longer left to the exclusive domains of digital ‘insiders’, open resources (data and content) are rapidly becoming widely used and highly popular.”

The various presentations given during the three-day programme, showed there are many definitions of the commons. The notion of the commons is interlinked with the concept of ‘open’, which was discussed at length and interpreted in various ways.

  • Open standards and technologies: by using non-proprietary standards for providing access to commons resources, sharing, interoperability and (re)use becomes possible on a large scale.
  • Open licenses: these are expanding the ways in which people can view, interact with and reuse resources.

Distinctions were also made between open software, open data, open knowledge and open culture, since the economical implications for these various open resources differ, and the exploitation models that are used for each of them.

Some speakers, like software developer Dymitri Kleiner and artist Simona Levi, argue that something can only belong to the commons if it is truly open. Others, like Smithsonian director of Web and New Media Strategy Michael Edson and economic researcher Joost Poort have a more pragmatic approach in saying that something can be part of the commons without actually being owned by the commons. The Creative Commons licence model was often referred to as an example of how resources can be opened up without rights holders having to exclusively sign over (all) their rights. 

open versus closed: accessing and re-using content
From an archival perspective, the session about Pro-Active Archives on the second day of the conference delivered insights on how archives and cultural institutions in general deal with providing content to the commons. Some institutions are more willing or able to share content than others. Two of the presentations from the panel are highlighted below as an example of the different points of view in the field.

Michael Edson presented the Smithsonian Commons. The aim of the project is to provide access to resources from the Smithsonian collections under the motto “vast, findable, sharable and free” [1]. The Smithsonian’s mission is to provide free access to their collection in order to increase and diffuse knowledge. The idea of creating a commons is a logical step forward to provide this access. In Edson’s words, the Smithsonian Commons are a commons of stuff, communities and expertise. In his view, the commons are more than repository where people can find and share free content – it is most of all a place to share ideas and to gain knowledge. The project will invest heavily in research, including research for new revenue models.

The second speaker of the session, Sandra Fauconnier of the Netherlands Institute for Media Art (NIMk) provided another perspective on providing content for the commons. NIMk holds one of the largest media art collections of Europe, and at the same time is a distributor and an intermediate between artists, galleries and curators. In her presentation, Fauconnier shared her experiences on working with the video artists. She distinguishes three types of artists:

  1. Protective artists, who only allow 30 seconds of a work to be published on the Internet or shown outside the exhibition context.
  2. Artists who show their entire work online.
  3. Artists who use the Internet as a creative platform and experiment with co-authorship in creating art.

The third group of artists sees the commons as a collaborative art space in which users to actively contribute and create, which is similar to the Smithsonian’s idea of a commons. However, most artists are protective towards their work, even those who use art works of others as a resource to produce their own work. This double standard shows there is still ambivalence regarding the idea of the commons. There are several reasons for this. First of all, artists are afraid that when their videos are presented online the value of viewing their work is reduced, since online video still can’t provide the same quality as video which is exhibited in a high-quality exhibition environment. Experience is another argument for not providing video art online; a different medium provides a different experience and online, the experience can no longer be controlled by the artist. The third and main reason however seems to be revenue. Fauconnier noticed that artists tend to become more protective once their work becomes more popular and is thus more likely to generate money.

The examples above outline the spectrum in which institutions can position themselves regarding providing content to the commons. One thing all presentations during the conference made clear is that the traditional models do not fit the current situation anymore and that cultural institutions, artists and archives have to rethink their position towards the commons.

making video part of the web
One theme that was revisited many times was the importance of opening up video, and weaving it into the fabric of the web. Ben Moskowitz, coordinator of the Open Video Alliance, stated that due to the use of closed standards like Flash, most video on the web is stuck in an isolated ‘black box’ , which goes against the original idea of hypertextuality, the very basis of the web . This results in video content to which people can only link to, and not truly engage with. By using open standards like HTML5, video becomes a ‘first class citizen of the web’.

Hay Kranen, front-end developer of Dutch public broadcaster VPRO and cultural advisor of Wikimedia, demonstrated some of the possibilities in a specific session on HTML5. By using HTML5, video becomes much more open and flexible, since people can interact and play with it more easily. For instance, users can add easily add subtitles and captions to HTML5 videos with applications like Universal Subtitles. Another benefit of HTML5, is that users don’t have to install plugins in order to be able to view a video in a web browser.

Michael Dale from Kaltura and Wikimedia demonstrated the HTML5 Video Sequencer which enables users to build video sequences by combining and ordering media assets on the Wikimedia Commons.

Still, HTML5 is not a magical solution nor a quick fix, because not all browsers (Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer) support the same codecs. This means that if you want your video to be available in multiple browsers, you will need to add and specify various video sources in the HTML5 code [2]. The techniques for making video part of the web, and consequently more open and interactive, are in place, but widespread adoption is yet to get strong footing throughout the open video community. For instance, the WebM project supported by Google is a large contender for a universal HTML5 video codec.

money, money, money?
The general conference theme was ‘paying the costs of making things free’ and speakers addressed this issue from various perspectives. The costs of the Smithsonian Commons project amounts to $20M, and the fundraising has only just started. Research on revenue models will be an important part of this project, and although the social and cultural benefits of a Smithsonian Commons are easy to see, paying for it is not as clear-cut. The session on revenue models on day three provided some possible answers to the questions on how to pay for Commons resources and what the benefits of open content are.

Governments can play an important role in financing archives and institutions that increase the amount of content in the public domain. The European Union is doing this by financing a large part of Europeana, the European digital library. Business development manager Harry Verwayen presented the project’s business model, which he stated is based on “advertising content that is elsewhere available”. Running the platform of Europeana costs about €5M a year, which is funded by the EU. The real problems are sustaining the digitisation of content and the rights issues of presenting digital content online for participating archives and institutions. Their costs are not directly funded by the project. One solution presented was an adoption program for orphan works for which a fund should be built where the collection societies and partners participate in. This way, an insurance and revenue model is built for materials with a low intrinsic value, but that are almost out of copyright.

The Dutch government is also investing in the digitalisation of audiovisual heritage and providing access to the digitalised material through the Images for the Future project. Hans Westerhof, deputy director of Sound and Vision and until recently Images for the Future program manager talked about the economies of scale of such a large digitisation project. In the case of Sound and Vision, the millions of Euros available due to Images for the Future has resulted in a cost reduction of digitisation of the collections of a whopping 70-80%. Sustaining and making a large digital collection available is still very costly though, and institutions need to be creative in finding ways to do so. Currently the content in the archive is manually enriched, which is an expensive business. The archive invests in projects to automatic extract and crowdsource metadata as a way to reduce costs.

Other initiatives do not receive large amounts of funding from the government and use crowdfunding and (online) communities alone as a way to raise money and manpower. This was discussed by Dolf Veenvliet, 3D artist and member of the community of the free open source 3D content creation suite Blender. For instance, the short film Sintel which was made using the Blender software, required a budget of €475,000, a large part of which was raised through Blender community contributions. However, Veenvliet stressed that sticking to one financial source does not work for projects with large budgets, and that you need to raise money from other sources such as sponsoring and funding as well. Furthermore, the Blender community contributes by creating and sharing models, which can be used in films. In short, creating a community and keeping it involved is key.

Jamie King of the open P2P film and series platform VODO also talked about the importance of having a strong community base, which contributes financially and in kind to their productions. For instance, the science fiction show Pioneer One was launched through VODO. First, $6,000 was raised through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to make the pilot, and $30,000 has now be contributed by the community to film more episodes. Distribution of took place through VODO, BitTorrent and Limewire and the show has already been downloaded 850,000 times.

Open data and access can also save money. Eelco Ferwerda of Amsterdam University Press presented hard data on Open Access (OA) as a sustainable model for academic publishing. The advantages of OA is that funders can improve their Return on Investment, since it can be more easily ensured that publication will take place, and the spread of knowledge is advanced. Ferwerda referred to a 2009 report by John Houghton [3], in which the economic benefits of OA academic publishing for Holland are calculated. OA Worldwide, this would provide yearly benefits of €130M million, and €37M for the Netherlands alone.

The conference was concluded by Erik Kluitenberg of De Balie and Paul Keller of Knowledgeland. Kluitenberg reflected on the differences between this edition and the first Economies of the Commons conference in 2008. Even though many projects and ideas presented are in a start-up phase, or only just starting, the ideas around them are much more clear than two years ago. There are many innovative ideas, not just for opening up resources but also regarding revenue models. However, there are also impediments of fulfilling the commons ideal. A much more concerted effort is needed to go forward in this according to Kluitenberg, because nothing in the end outweighs the public interest. Keller concluded with a practical statement that was brought up by Ben Moskowitz in the final panel. If just twenty minutes of the 16 hours of public television made in the Nederlands every day would become available for the commons, this would already be a vast contribution compared to the current state.

A quote by strategic advisor at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation Eirik Solheim was repeated more than once throughout the conference and seems to capture the overall spirit of the conference: “You can’t be the only provider of your content, but you can be the best provider of your content”. By making sure what you provide to the commons is the best out there, you will attract a large and most importantly committed community, which will strengthen the and further develop the open nature of the commons.

Blogs on the individual sessions of the conference can be found on  Economies of the Commons 2.

[1] Smithsonian Commons Prototype: Experience Brief
[2] Presentation slides of Hay Kranen, with an example of code referring to different video sources.
[3] John Houghton, 2009. Costs and benefits of research communication: The Dutch Situation.