Quick, Easy, Online Licenses

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Existing rights structures and processes are often so clumsy and manual that innovating around them can leave startups in a tricky legal grey area, so innovation is more likely to happen outside the most litigious and highly regulated parts of the world like the US and Europe. This lends a natural advantage to businesses in places further off the mainstream radar, developing countries in particular. Hear about new business and licensing models and what they mean for publishers.

The mainstream book rights industry is based on manual, human-to-human license deals; in a web-based, on-demand world, these deals increasingly seem picky, clumsy and slow, and are hard to scale. They’re also often exclusive to territory, language, or medium, which can often hinder distribution as much as enable it. Most importantly, manual deals tend to lock out small players who, harnessed en masse, could provide a significant revenue stream.

Automating permission is about cutting out the manual steps in a reproduction license — those human, deal-making steps between having content to sell and having others sell it for you. In its simplest form, automating permission requires a website with a database of content metadata, a form for capturing licensee details, and a payment button. In a more complex form, it could involve a fee-based API that encourages third-parties to develop context-specific applications that reuse content.

Our new Paperight project is another example. The existing print-book supply chain is just never going to reach most of Africa. But print is still the cheapest, easiest form of on-the-ground sale and consumption of book content. So we want print and copy shops to be printing book content for their customers. To do this, we need to clear permissions on behalf of any small business or organisation to reproduce book content on their own printers. This means automating reproduction-for-resale license deals for thousands of books in thousands of different locations, on the fly, often for single-copy print runs. There is no existing system in place at the moment that provides this particular kind of permission, but it’s absolutely crucial if content is going to reach more of Africa.

Existing rights structures and processes are often so clumsy and manual that innovating around them can leave startups in a tricky legal grey area. This innovation is then more likely to happen outside the most litigious and highly regulated parts of the world, such as the US and Europe. This lends a natural advantage to businesses in places further off the mainstream radar, developing countries in particular.


Traditionally, book publishing already has a fairly efficient analogue permission system built in, in the way it sells print books through retailers. Apart from payment-terms documentation, a bookstore usually doesn’t need to negotiate an agreement to sell a publisher’s print books (even though that retailer may return unsold stock, skewing risk in the publishers’ direction). The print book supply chain was built this way to let small retailers sell publishers’ books for them, and earn some money in the process.

Now, in a digital world, getting permission to reproduce and resell content should be as easy as getting permission from a publisher to sell print books.

The ebook industry is moving in that direction, though deals between retailers and publishers are often mediated by negotiated deals and technical complexity (e.g. the setup fee and admin process for selling ebooks aggregated by Ingram Digital). Ebooks, however, are only one way to sell digital information on. OPDS/BookServer, for example, is important and innovative, but for now is limited to straight resale of ebooks as ebooks. Automated permissions/licenses need to be broader than that to really allow for the creative, highly customised reuse of content.

Some APIs – whether open or paid-for – offer a wide range of options for this sort of thing, such as those employed by The Guardian and aggregators like Scribd. The Copyright Clearance Center (among others) is also making great strides in a similar area with Rightslink, which lets anyone purchase a license instantly to re-use content from about fifty major publishers.

Competing with piracy

The prevalence of piracy in the developing world proves that customers there want content, and that someone local will meet that demand. Even if that someone wanted to do so legitimately, the cost of getting permission to reproduce and resell content is incredibly high. For rightsholders, on the other side of the coin, the cost of monitoring and acting against piracy is also high. Those costs are not only financial: they comprise all kinds of resource costs, including time, telecommunications infrastructure, language barriers, and the unease and distrust caused by cultural difference.

An automated permissions system lowers those costs on both sides. If the cost of getting permission were low, legitimate businesses in piracy-riddled markets could reproduce your content, and act in their own self-interest as eyes and ears (and offer or aid enforcement) against piracy on the ground.

In developing countries especially, these legitimate businesses will be small and numerous, far too small and numerous to administer with existing rights deals negotiated in person. Automating permission is the only way to harness a crowd of resellers. In order for this to work, of course, licensees need to get some added value from going the legitimate route. This added value is easy to provide if you have direct contact with those who’ve used an online, automated permissions system: licensees can get digital access to up-to-date content, marketing materials, ideas from elsewhere in your licensee network, opportunities to sync promotional activity across the network, advance notice of upcoming content, and so on. Piracy-based businesses will always be at a disadvantage without access to this.

Nothing new

Automated permission is of course just a term for a kind of openness to participation, which is not new. It’s rarely fully embraced by book publishers, however. Various existing models in other industries put the principle into practice, such as smartphone app stores, CCPlus, open-source software, and APIs in general. These models rely on highly automated, scalable permission systems that often permit others to make money from them.

Publishers’ content could be treated the same way. (Small publishers can implement the principle easily and cheaply, without developing a web UI, database and API; a license page and pay-now button could do the trick.)

This approach can meaningfully deliver content to under-resourced economies, customised and carried over the last mile by small-scale businesses with financial incentives to do so.

The first step for publishers is to think of their content like water that others can bottle, rather than trying to bottle it all themselves. There are now easy ways to let others sell content for you in many different media, as and where it suits their specific customers, and to make that scale by automating permission.

Photo of Arthur Attwell

Arthur Attwell

Electric Book Works

I’m the co-founder and CEO of Electric Book Works, a digital publishing and R&D company started in 2006. We research and try out digital-publishing best practice, particularly for use in developing countries.

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