Paul Stacey

Global Education Commons Steward
February 8, 2018, 4:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is a two part blog post. In part one Starting Anew in the Landscape of Open I describe how thrilled I am to be starting a new job as Executive Director of the Open Education Consortium.  In that post I map out how I see the current landscape of ‘Open’ and mention the most prominent challenges and opportunities.

In this part two blog post I tackle the second part of what the Open Education Consortium asked me to describe in my final interview – define where the Open Education Consortium should be positioned within this landscape and propose a roadmap for getting there.

The research and writing I did co-authoring Made With Creative Commons led me to realize that “open” results in things being put into a commons. At this point in time this kind of thinking seems largely absent from the open landscape. There seems to be a sense that simply sticking a Creative Commons license on something and sharing it is all that open education entails. I think those things are necessary but insufficient to create a lasting, sustainable open movement. To create a lasting sustainable movement we’ll have to move beyond seeing open education as simply a pool of openly licensed education materials to seeing it as involving a community based social system.

I’ve come to agree wholeheartedly with David Bollier who, in his Commons, Short and Sweet,  says the commons is:

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

I wrote a lot about the last two bullet points in Made With Creative Commons. But in the context of the Open Education Consortium and the open education movement overall I think the first two bullet points are key to the future.

For me the Open Education Consortium is positioned in the open landscape as a Global Education Commons Steward. This shows up across the top of my one page visual of the Current Landscape of Open.


To take a leadership role as a global education commons steward the I propose the Open Education Consortium focus on two things:

  1. Manage a pool of shared education resources. This can be the entire collection of open educational resources all members of the Open Education Consortium have or it could be a subset of all the resources. In either case the idea is that the consortium pools resources and manages them collectively.
  2. Develop a community-based social system for managing the resources. To further quote David Bollier “There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.” Part of the roadmap for the Open Education Consortium establishing itself in the open landscape as a global education commons steward involves its members establishing a community-based social system for managing their pooled resources. Simply having a community and pool of resources is not enough. There needs to be a set of protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.

I’ve spent a lot of time working in the open education landscape. On my one page visual above I list some of the values and norms I think are needed for this social system:

  • Collaboration
  • Cross Institutional Teams
  • Co-creation
  • Collective Use
  • Curation
  • Impact Evaluation, and
  • Iteration

I list these merely as pieces of a whole. There is a lot of work to be done with the Open Education Consortium members themselves as a community to collectively devise a full social system process.

So for me the Open Education Consortium is positioned as a global education commons steward within the landscape of open. The roadmap to fulfilling that role involves pooling and sharing consortium members education resources and developing a community-based social system for managing the resources.

The back page of my Current Landscape of Open describes more thoroughly what my approach as executive director will be.


As you can see my initial plan is broken into three phases, 1. Review, 2. Future Vision, and 3. Implementation. I won’t describe everything but here are a few highlights from each phase.

In the Review phase I plan to talk and listen to staff, the Board, committees, consortium members, and funders. I’m interested in getting a complete handle on status, challenges and opportunities. I see this as largely about me listening.

In the Future Vision phase I want to define the Open Education Consortium’s future as a unique compelling call to action based on a theory of change in the maturing open education space. As already described I see the rallying cry as establishing the consortium as a global education commons steward with a social system for collectively managing a pool of resources. But I see this phase as also establishing the consortium’s value proposition. What is it the consortium can do as a whole that members can’t do on their own? It may also be possible to increase the value proposition by broadening who can be a member and considering the potential of integrating some of the other components of open in play in education as depicted in my visual of the open landscape.

The Implementation phase involves continuing with the successful initiatives the Open Education Consortium is already engaged in as well as adding new ones and finding funding to bring them to fruition. It involves implementing the Future Vision and growing the membership globally.

I describe these as phases on the road map and in some sense they are sequential but I acknowledge that to a certain extent they also happen concurrently. You can’t stop implementation while you engage in review and future vision.

I hope this gives you a sense of my vision and plan for the Open Education Consortium. If you are a consortium member please reach out to me and engage me in dialog. I’m keen to hear about what each of you are doing and how the consortium is providing you value. I also want to hear your ideas for what more it could do and get feedback on my concept of pooling resources and developing a community-based social system for managing them.

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Starting Anew in the Landscape of Open

I’m thrilled to be starting a new job as Executive Director of the Open Education Consortium.  It is a tremendous honour to be chosen to lead a global network of educational institutions, individuals and organizations that support an approach to education based on openness, including collaboration, innovation and collective development and use of open educational materials.

For the final interview I was asked to:

  1. Map out how I see the current landscape of ‘Open’ and mention the most prominent challenges and opportunities.
  2. Define where the Open Education Consortium should be positioned within this landscape and propose a roadmap for getting there.

As a means of getting to know my views and an early indication of the direction I’d like to take the Open Education Consortium in I thought I’d share my answers here in two separate posts. This first post maps out how I see the current landscape of Open. In the next post I describe where I think the Open Education Consortium is positioned in this landscape and how I envision it getting there.

Current Landscape of Open

Before taking on this new role with the Open Education Consortium I spent five years working at Creative Commons supporting open initiatives all around the world. Through that work I developed a unique big picture view of the landscape of open.

For the Open Education Consortium I decided to depict my map of the current landscape of open as a big one page visual. Here it is, Paul’s <a title="LandscapeOfOpenStacey" LandscapeOfOpenStacey

As you can see I’ve adopted the landscape metaphor with a tree of open including roots below and branches bearing fruit above.

Lets focus on the lower left part of the visual first.


Cutting across the visual from left to right is a brown line representing earth. Above the brown line are established and growing components of the open landscape. Below the brown line are new germinating aspects of the open landscape. With this simple delineation I give a sense of what is already in place in the landscape and new emerging aspects of the landscape I think likely to grow.

Above the line I show an open tree from which are hanging major established and growing components of the open landscape.


Starting at the bottom left of the tree and going clockwise we have:

  • Open Source Software and Open Source Hardware
  • Open Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums
  • Open Science
  • Open Access
  • Open Data
  • Open Government
  • Open Policy, and finally
  • Open Educational Resources

As you can see the current open landscape is large and growing. I expect these kinds of open are well known so won’t expand on each with detailed explanations. Searching any of those terms will generate masses of follow-on information for those wanting to explore.

If you are in education you might be wondering what all these broader components of the open landscape have to do with education. I believe all these components of the open landscape are inter-related. They are all concurrently happening and successful for very similar reasons. They operate on similar principles and generate similar value. They all have potential for educational use.

I believe the combinatorial benefits of adopting multiple means of open are synergistic and generate a value greater than the sum of the individual parts. If your primary open efforts are around Open Educational Resources it is strategically beneficial to broaden your efforts to include open policy, open access, open GLAM, and other means of openness. Together they generate a greater value than they do apart and finding ways to connect and collaborate what you are doing with what they are doing can amplify impact and benefits.

Below the line, I show several aspects of the open landscape, colour coded to relate to growing components above the line on the tree, that are taking root now and have potential to germinate into something substantial.


While the growing components on the tree above the line are well known these germinating parts below the line likely need some explanation. So here goes.

  • Open technologies – There are a growing number of  software and hardware technologies that are open source and support open aspects of education. Equally important to me are the emerging technology tools aiming to enable citizen participation, help groups collaborate, and support processes for engaging people in collaborative decision making. Collectively these represent an emerging technology infrastructure for open. Going forward, I expect to see an open architecture of technologies integrating different tools and applications together to support the whole overarching open process.
  • Open education data – Open data is an established, growing and increasingly important part of the open landscape. Governments in particular, at the national and municipal level, are generating significant new and improved services to citizens through open data and stimulating entrepreneurial activity by making open data available for business use. However, education data remains largely locked down and closed. I see big opportunities for improved education services and teaching and learning itself through open education data. Key for me will be student control of their own data, privacy, security, and direct tangible benefits to those who choose to make their education data open.
  • Open institutions – Over the years we’ve seen Open Educational Resources start as small learning objects within a course, expand to include textbooks, expand again to encompass entire courses, and expand again, as we are seeing now, to include entire degrees (Z degrees). Going forward I anticipate a growing number of institutions will adopt openness as an underlying component of all their credential offerings transforming themselves into open institutions.
  • Open enterprises – Over an 18 month period I co-wrote, with my Creative Commons colleague Sarah Pearson, a Kickstarter funded book called Made With Creative Commons. This book examines the ways organizations are currently participating in open landscape activities while still generating  revenue and sustaining operations. Open enterprises embrace openness as a key strategy and look to use it as a means of generating social and economic good. In the education sector open enterprises are largely in the germination stage. Some have poked their heads up above the earth but many more are still working out how to be an open enterprise and how to ethically engage with and participate in the open community. I think this will work itself out in the next few years leading to even greater growth above the line.

To the right of the open tree I’ve highlighted and expanded on aspects I believe most relevant for the Open Education Consortium. For open government I simply list a few different government related organizations currently active advancing the open landscape particularly as it relates to Open Educational Resources – UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning, and the Open Government Partnership. There are many more that could be added. The Open Education Consortium has an advocacy and advising role to play on behalf of its members with government.

Open government often results in open policy at the national, regional, and institutional level. The Open Education Consortium brings to the table existing open policy examples, templates, and tools fostering adthat can be adapted for use in any particular country or initiative.

Given the Open Education Consortium members are primarily involved with Open Educational Resources (OER) I have built out that aspect of my open landscape the most.


Above the brown line I show the large and growing aspects of Open Educational Resources including open courseware, open textbooks, open courses / MOOCs, open degrees (Z degrees), and open research. Each of these can be thought of as a young plant sown from seeds off the large open tree. If I was to summarize I’d say there is a lot of of really great stuff happening across the Open Educational Resources landscape. When I think back to my beginnings in this space in 2003 the transformation and growth is amazing.

But there are still a lot of things germinating below the line.


I could say a ton about all these aspects above and below the line but I won’t. If you want to hear more about my views and what I’m seeing related to each of these components contact me. We can have that conversation.


From a big picture open landscape perspective, and especially looking at the members of the Open Education Consortium, a key observation is that Open Educational Resources work is being done in both the global north and the global south. OER are not some new form of colonialism, rather they are a new form of community empowerment – affordable, participatory, and powerful.

Growing above the line are OER at the university and college level. Germinating below the line are OER initiatives at the K-12 level and for vocational trades related areas. As the use and benefits of OER expand to these broader academic contexts the membership and advocacy role of OEC can expand too.


Over the years the range of people participating in OER has broadened. Todays open landscape has a growing number of participants including:

  • Faculty
  • Government
  • Librarians
  • Administrators
  • Students

Below the line still germinating are:

  • communities
  • bookstores, and
  • citizens

But these are fast coming. At the end of January 2018 I’ll be speaking to Campus Stores Canada about open business models at their annual conference. The Open Education Consortium needs to be a place for all of these participants.


The final part of the Open landscape I have on my visual are the sun and rain growth enablers for the whole OER space. These are:

  • Funding
  • Open advocacy
  • Open conferences
  • Open events
  • Open awards

OEC is playing a key role in all of these. Nominations for OEC’s Open Education Awards for Excellence are open now. Awards will be given out at their OEGlobal Conference in Delft Netherlands in April.

Somewhat surprisingly there isn’t a lot of collaboration between different open organizations so I’ve put open partnerships below the line as something germinating but something I think OEC could play a lead role in generating. Formal means of becoming an open leader or ambassador are just now being developed so I’ve placed them below the line as germinating too.

Well there you have it, Paul Stacey’s one page visual of the current Open Landscape. I hope you find it useful as a framework for seeing the big picture.

The very top part of my one page visual depicts my answer to  where the Open Education Consortium should be positioned within this landscape and proposes a roadmap for getting there. In my next post I’ll explain and expand on what I show there proposing a rather unique view of OEC’s position and potential role.


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Open Harvest

How can we build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food? That was the big question on my mind when, at the invitation of Agroknow, I set off to Chania Greece for an event called Open Harvest. This event brought together organizations from around the world who are all engaged in research, knowledge, and capacity development related to agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment. Organizations like GODAN, CGIAR, INRA, CABI, CAAS, ISI / DRTC, EMBRAPA and many more. It is always special when a network of organizations like this are brought together as it provides a forum for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Open Harvest Sign

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

The first two days of Open Harvest were done workshop style with groups discussing how they define a “scientific data commons” and “shared scientific data infrastructure”, why we need it, and how it relates to relate to specific initiatives & agendas organizations are working on. A big topic was open data. Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike. Everyone made reference to the FAIR principle. Data must be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. Discussion related to these questions and open data was wide-ranging touching on policy, privacy, security, standards, technology, research, services, management, and how best to collaborate around this work.

On the third day I gave an opening keynote  which I called “Beyond Licensing: the social and economic aspects of building an open data commons.” Drawing on insights from the recently published Made With Creative Commons I aimed to provoke new thinking about not just how to make data open but about how a commons works and the innovations and economic potential it has.

One of the ways I’ve been reflecting on and assimilating what I learned at Open Harvest is framing what took place against a simple equation I’ve been using from Made With Creative Commons. That equation looks like this:

Sustainability = open resources + social good + human connection.

Sustainability relates largely to open business models and the ability to generate revenue to sustain operations. Open resources are digital goods that have been licensed, (usually using Creative Commons), to be freely and openly available for others to retain, revise, reuse, remix, and redistribute. Human connection refers to prosocial human connection that openness enables. A move from anonymous market transaction to co-creation interactions where a community is built up around the resources being shared.

Let me use the lens of this equation to share what I learned at Open Harvest and describe what I see as the next steps for creating a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food.

Open Resources

So just what are the resources organizations have that could be made open and shareable? They are many and diverse including things like policies, practices & processes (workflows, data management plans, …), models, ontologies/semantics/metadata, technologies, and data. Focusing simply on open data is limiting. We’re really talking about a whole ecosystem of openness including open policy, open knowledge, open practices, and open data. When I look at a collection of open resources like this I think about which ones will be the most important and valuable to the consortium. But I also look at what resources will be most valuable and helpful for the intended beneficiary – farmers and industry. The strategic themes and the drivers for industry needs mapped out in Campden BRI’s Innovation for the food and drink supply chain document does a great job of defining the practical and applied resources needed. I wish there was something similar for farmers.

When you have such a large number of organizations doing related work it is helpful for there to be a level collaboration and sharing taking place to reduce redundancy and ensure interoperability of outputs. An event like Open Harvest shows just how important that is but going forward there is a big need to look at some overarching mechanism for ongoing collaboration and coordination. There needs to be a means for participants to identify what they have in the way of resources and what they need. A means for inter-organizational collaboration and exchange of shared resources. A coordinated effort toward a common goal.

Driven by Social Good

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

Social Good

In 2016 world leaders at the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals. Goal number 2 is – “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Clearly this is a major social good, one that all the organizations at Open Harvest are working in support of.

Open Harvest participating organizations are all working to make agriculture and food relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. As GODAN, one of the participating organizations notes in their statement of purpose: “Open access to research, and open publication of data, are vital resources for food security and nutrition, driven by farmers, farmer organizations, researchers, extension experts, policy makers, governments, and other private sector and civil society stakeholders participating in ‘innovation systems’ and along value chains. Lack of institutional, national, and international policies and openness of data limits the effectiveness of agricultural and nutritional data from research and innovation. Making open data work for agriculture and nutrition requires a shared agenda to increase the supply, quality, and interoperability of data, alongside action to build capacity for the use of data by all stakeholders.”

The social good being generated through the work of Open Harvest participants encompasses many of the other sustainable goals too including: poverty, health, gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, and sustainable consumption. The extent to which the resources coming out of Open Harvest organization work can be directly shown to positively contribute to the realization of these goals should be a metrics dashboard by which their success and impact is measured.

Human Interaction

Having open resources that contribute to social good attracts participation. Ideally the resources are of interest and useful to large numbers of people. At Open Harvest I found myself listening to what others were saying with an eye to who is generating resources of interest not just to government and researchers but to farmers and citizens. One of the big opportunities associated with openness and creating a commons is the way it opens up participation and engagement to everyone. It not only levels the playing field it invites new players to engage.

Open Harvest Workshop

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

However, going from an autonomous, proprietary, all-rights-reserved model to an open one that provides access and promotes reuse is a big change. For this to become widespread it will require incentives, new means of evaluating performance, and clear articulation of benefits.

When thinking about what open resources to create and share I think about which ones will generate the greatest interest, the largest number of users, the most impact. What resources provide maximum value? If we have an Internet of Things with sensors collecting data related to food and agriculture what data will be of interest and use to consumers and producers? Which resources are relevant globally? Which ones have the potential to build a community of users around who all engage in using, improving, translating, localizing, and updating the resource? Ensuring open resources, including open data, have impact involves building a relationship with those who benefit from the use of those resources.

In my experience the social and community based aspect of openness is the one part of the equation least attended to. And yet I would argue it is the most important. If we are going to build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food then lets build one that provides access to all, maximizes participation, generates value collectively, spurs innovation, and brings people together for a common cause. Lets not use openness to just improve existing practices but rather to do innovative things not possible any other way.

I commend the Open Harvest participants for putting together a fantastic Open Harvest 2nd Chania Declaration and Call to Action mapping out a way forward.

Special thanks to the Agroknow team for hosting an amazing event and to all the participants for welcoming me and sharing their work and aspirations.

Wonderful Open Harvest video.

Originally published as Agroknow blog post 19-June-2017.

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Imagining a Commons Based Music Industry

These past few weeks I’ve been heads down writing up case studies of organizations and businesses across all sectors who have Creative Commons based open business models.

One of the great things about working at Creative Commons is the way my colleagues track and share news related to the work we do. Over the past few weeks music industry news and events have been most thought provoking. I thought I’d use this post to essentially think out loud about how music might work in a commons-based model.

Let me say up front that this is exploratory, out-of-the-box thinking. The start of taking learnings and approaches from the case studies I’m writing about and imagining how they might apply to the music industry. This is not some carefully thought through magic solution but rather an effort at using a few news stories to describe the current state of music as a business and then break free of the current industry model and define how a commons-based alternative might start from with a different set of principles while still generating a livelihood for musicians. Here are recent news items, stories, and initiatives I’m going to draw on:

This past week 160 artists and record labels signed a petition calling for a reform of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Here’s a copy of the actual petition:

DMCA Petitiion

Its a bit hard to read the small print so I’ve transcribed:

Dear Congress:

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is broken and no longer works for creators.

As songwriters and artists who are a vital contributing force to the U.S. and to American exports around the world, we are writing to express our concern about the ability of the next generation of creators to earn a living. The existing laws threaten the continued viability of songwriters and recording artists to survive from the creation of music. Aspiring creators shouldn’t have to decide between making music and making a living. Please protect them.

One of the biggest problems confronting songwriters and recording artists today is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This law was written and passed in an era that is technologically out-of-date compared to the era in which we live. It has allowed tech companies to grow and generate huge profits by creating ease of use for consumers to carry almost every recorded song in history in their pocket via a smartphone, while songwriters’ and artists’ earnings continue to diminish. Music consumption has skyrocketed, but the monies earned by individual writers and artists for that consumption has plummeted.

The DMCA simply doesn’t work. It’s impossible for tens of thousands of individual songwriters and artists to muster the resources necessary to comply with its application. The tech companies who benefit from the DMCA today were not the intended protectorate when it was signed into law nearly two decades ago. We ask you to enact sensible reform that balances the interests with creators with the interests of the companies who exploit music for their financial enrichment. Its only then consumers will truly benefit.

This has been precipitated by the musicians and their representative labels and societies doing battle with the likes of YouTube and Apple. If you want to read more start with:

In my work at Creative Commons and the work around open business models I’m very much interested in seeing business models and economic approaches that reward creators. Earning a livelihood as a musician or creator of any type has gotten more difficult. In a digital age where copying is near $0 I’m looking for the artist to get a very large percent of every sale.

Musician stories in Cash Music’s online publication Watt aptly illustrate the challenge musicians face. Stories like Why Am I Doing This to Myself?, Open is Hope, The Career of Being Myself, and many others.

Historically creators have relied on intermediaries to represent them and distribute/sell their creations. These middle intermediary organizations (labels, collecting societies, and now tech companies) have often made riches off the work of creators sometimes at the expense of creators themselves. So I’m all for the artists calling this out and pushing for DMCA Reform that better protects their ability to have a livelihood. Artists themselves ought to be the primary beneficiaries of their work.

In March 2016 SoundCloud, where a sizeable portion of the audio commons lives (they have lots of Creative Commons licensed music), announced their streaming service SoundCloud Go followed by a Twitter investment in June 2016. When it comes to this kind of business model I ask myself the following questions:

  • how is revenue split between the platform and the artist? I’m looking for higher splits to artists.
  • how is the split calculated? I’m looking for a deal that fairly acknowledges the value platform, artists, and users generate.
  • how does the platform factor Creative Commons into their business model? I’m looking for a key differentiation strategy.
  • how much is this about platform valuation and monetization, vs. advancement of creative culture, artists, public access, and the music community? I’m looking for the latter.

The details are so sparse with SoundCloud Go that I don’t get a sense of any answers.

I’m also interested in how SoundCloud Go compares with Spotify, Apple, Google, Tidal, Rhapsody, and other music subscription services on the basis of those questions. One of the things most frustrating is how opaque the actual business models are. There is very little transparency.

In terms of percent split of revenues associated with music streaming it seems the Copyright Royalty Board has been weighing in.

“How does the money get paid to labels and artists?
If the licensee has not cut a direct deal with the copyright owners, it can get a compulsory licenses which comes with a statutory rate as determined by the CRB judges and is paid to SoundExchange, an agency set up to administer payments. Those payments are split as follows: 50 percent to the master rights owner, which are typically record labels; 45 percent to the artist that recorded the music; and 5 percent to musicians, via their unions.”

Notice how 50 percent typically goes to the record label and how labels are typically the rights owner — not the artist.

I find it a bit hypocritical that labels, who have a long history of exploiting creators, are also signatories to this DMCA Reform petition. It seems to me they themselves are examples of “companies who exploit music for financial enrichment.”

I’ve been reading with great interest about British singer and songwriter Imogen Heap who as described here “is building what she calls a “fair trade” music industry that aims to sidestep middlemen like iTunes and Spotify and give musicians more ownership over the money and data produced by their work.”

I like the way her system makes the distribution of revenue completely transparent. Click on the Licensing tab on the site where her song Tiny Human is made available and view the Policies. Splits are transparent and the system flows the revenue directly through to all the musicians involved. I’m especially interested in the way she’s using blockchain to enhance creator autonomy and control over her works, including financial compensation, without the current reliance on third party intermediaries.

As I read all these stories I find myself thinking that everyone is still very much bought in to the idea that music is a commodity, a form of property, consumed by music listeners. This is how our current economy works, but as we’ve seen it results in inequity and siloed distribution of wealth. It anonymizes the relationship between creator and consumer. Rather than tweak this model I find myself wondering, “What might a commons-based solution to the current music industry might look like?”

Here’s a few thoughts on how commons-based thinking might change the model.

The second last sentence in the DMCA petition says, “We ask you to enact sensible reform that balances the interests of creators with the interests of companies who exploit music for their financial enrichment.” Notice how the interests of the public and music listeners are excluded. A commons based model would actually seek to balance the needs of the creators with the needs of listeners and the public.

I know in theory that government and copyright law is intended to act on the publics behalf while ensuring appropriate means of livelihood for the creator. But as this petition so aptly points out the current copyright law fails to do so and copyright legislation and its reform have increasingly been in the interests of “companies who exploit music for their financial enrichment” not in the interests of the creator or the public.

Copyright is based on the idea of personal ownership and property rather than communal shared resources. A commons based approach would see music not as the unilateral fixed work of a single artist but rather as a collaborative work that draws on all music that came before it and evolves through public use, enhancement, and innovation. More listeners, more use, more derivative works, these would not be seen as piracy but as positives.

A commons based approach is reciprocal. While others may use your works the same is true for you — you are free to build your music by innovating and making derivatives of others music. It’s a two-way street.

I really like the way theatre group Howlround, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community expresses it. “A commons is a place to share the resources you have and take the resources you need. We believe that making art is more than a money game, that ticket sales for a live performance are just one piece of what it takes to claim success in our art form. Access and engagement are our highest values, and everyone, yes everyone, has something to contribute to the learning, the making, and the sharing of art.” Similar to Howlround a commons based approach to music would aim for access, engagement, and mass participation.

A commons based model would embrace the benefits of network effects where every use of the resource generates value not just for the creator but for everyone. A commons-based model would enable and celebrate remix as an integral form of creative expression and innovation, something that generates value to the original creator as well as the public.

A commons-based model for music would fully utilize digital affordances in a fair way. Today music exists in digital form. It is non-rivalrous and non-depletable. If I give you a digital copy of a song I have I still have the song. Digital based resources can be copied, shared, distributed and used at costs which approach zero dollars and at a scale that makes them increasingly accessible to the entire world. Rather than creating artificial scarcity by applying property and copyright law, a commons-based model would accept and build on digital attributes as strengths not weaknesses. The aim is not to curb abundance but to enable abundance.

The DMCA petition treats music as a commodity — an “export” as it says in the opening sentence. In a commons based model music would be seen as more than a commercial transaction. It would be seen as a social interaction involving the artist building community and working together to ensure livelihood and communal use. The public isn’t just a consumer of music — a passive music listener. Music is integral to our lives — we sing along with songs, we learn to play them ourselves, songs get associated with key life events, … Songs quickly enter personal and societal culture where they evolve in ways that advance the field of music. A commons based model would acknowledge and recognize this value. In a commons based model music is a shared resource managed by a community.

A commons based approach to music emphasizes relationship. The current music industry largely severs that relationship. In the current model music is a commodity purchased anonymously. But fans know that a digital copy of the song costs the industry close to $0. They also know that the majority of whatever they pay for a song does not go to the artist but to third party intermediaries. These two factors combined with the lack of any kind of relationship lead to free riding. A commons based approach would focus on music not as a commodity but as a relationship and community. A commons based approach would offer fans a means to pay artists directly and know that their support was going directly to the artist.

The cost of implementing and enforcing the current laws as expressed in things like the DMCA are huge. Digital rights management, content ID systems, digital locks, take down notices, suing fans, and gazillions of lawyers have not been enough. Instead of incentivizing creative works these laws and technology practices curb innovation, creativity, and freedom of expression. What if the money currently spent trying to enforce DMCA was instead spent on commons based models that help artists earn a livelihood?

But just how would a commons-based model provide a livelihood for artists? There are many ways and I urge more serious experimentation and thought around this. I acknowledge it’s not simple as the commons operates in a way distinctly different from the current free market approach. So focusing solely on sales and revenue forces a round commons based approach to fit into a square hole.

The open business models case studies I’ve been working on include three case studies related to music — Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Mann, and Tribe of Noise. All three have created a commons-based model that makes extensive use of Creative Commons while still generating a means of livelihood.

Amanda Palmer has mastered the Art of Asking. She releases all her music and writing under Creative Commons is a model for how commons based music involves community engagement. She’s blazed a trail exploring alternative means of earning a livelihood including passing a hat, crowdfunding through Kickstarter, and Patreon. She has over 7,000 patrons on Patreon who are willing to fund her creation of new songs, film clips/music videos, long-form writing, and more random, unpredictable art-things at over $30,000 per “thing”. She creates about one “thing” per month.

Jonathan Mann built his reputation by writing and Creative Commons licensing a song a day. One of the ways he earns revenue is by writing custom acoustic or produced songs for a fee.

Tribe of Noise is a music platform that bridges both the commons and the commercial. Tribe of Noise helps musicians generate awareness and interest in their music by providing a community platform where they can upload their Creative Commons licensed music. Their platform also includes Noise PRO where musicians can upload music that could lead to a music deal secured by Tribe of Noise.

These are but a few examples. There isn’t just one model for earning a livelihood in a commons based approach there are many models. For more on ways to generate revenue from commons based business models across all sectors see What is an Open Business Model and How Can You Generate Revenue?

Let me also say that I’m not the only one imagining commons-based models for music.

The Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship recently launched the Open Music Initiative with a mission to: “Promote and advance the development of open source standards and innovation related to music to help assure proper compensation for all creators, performers and rights holders of music.”

Open Music Initiative

In June 2016 Hank Green wrote about his experience and decision to take action by creating the Internet Creators Guild.

 Internet Directors Guild Screenshot

And this past week I spoke with Milosz Miszczynski who is working on business models for Audio Commons.

 audio commons screenshot

While not explicitly just for music I also am deeply interested in the work being done around Commons Collaborative Economies. I think the initial thinking they’ve done to define Policies for Commons Collaborative Economies at European level a great start on something that could benefit musicians and other creators.

 Commons Collaborative Economies

I’m heartened to see the breadth of engagement underway by so many seeking to come up with a new model for the music industry. I’m hopeful that some of these efforts will arrive at a commons-based model for music that acts in the collective interests of the artist, the music community, and the public. I think everyone wants musicians to earn a livelihood.

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A Larger Context & Bigger Transformation

Creative Commons based open business models are part of something larger, a bigger transformation taking place in society and the economy.

This really struck home for me when, in response to our open call for nominations on who we should interview for our book on Creative Commons based open business models, we received tons of suggestions — many of which didn’t use Creative Commons at all.

In checking out all the suggestions we receive it quickly became apparent that “open business models” is a large context within which Creative Commons based open business models are a subset. While all of our interviews have focused on organizations and businesses that use Creative Commons I‘ve really enjoyed getting a deeper sense of this larger context. Understanding the big picture within which Creative Commons based open business models sit is helping me see the bigger transformation unfolding.

I want to share in this post some of things people recommend we explore and the non-Creative Commons based examples of open business models that are part of this larger context. Lets start with a few fun examples.

Jan Gondol suggested I might find BrewDog of interest. Thanks Jan! I do really like this example.


Calling themselves the first crowdfunded brewery BrewDog decided to do something breweries just don’t do — openly release all their recipes. Here’s what they say about their DIY Dog initiative:

“With DIY Dog we wanted to do something that has never been done before as well as paying tribute to our home-brewing roots. We wanted to take all of our recipes, every single last one, and give them all away for free, to the amazing global home-brewing community.

We have always loved the sharing of knowledge, expertise and passion in the craft beer community and we wanted to take that spirit of collaboration to the next level.

So here it is. The keys to our kingdom. Every single BrewDog recipe, ever. So copy them, tear them to pieces, bastardise them, adapt them, but most of all, enjoy them. They are well travelled but with plenty of miles still left on the clock. Just remember to share your brews, and share your results. Sharing is caring.

This is anti-corporate beer writ large; a new way of doing business. For generations, companies have fiercely protected their ‘secret’ recipes — clinging to a classified ideal, yellowing documents nervously hidden away by the founders, keys to the safe around their necks. Is it co-incidental that these same companies are the plodding remnants of another age; desperately clinging to their foundations?

For businesses born in the 21st Century it is all about sharing. Who cares about 11 herbs and spices? Here are 234 beers; our entire back catalogue and those yet to be released.”

From an open business model point of view not only do they give away all their craft beer recipes they’ve also devised a unique way to attract investors with their Equity for Punks Own a Piece of BrewDog pitch. Here’s what it says:

“Brewdog is an alternative small business owned by thousands of people who love craft beer. They are our shareholders, our friends, our community and the heart and soul of our business.

We have a community of over 14,500 equity punk investors, and this is your chance to join them.

In 2010, we tore up convention, turned the traditional business model on its head and launched Equity for Punks giving thousands of people a front row seat to the craft beer revolution.

And now it’s back. Bigger and better than ever.

You can find out more about investing in BrewDog by downloading the prospectus here.”

Unfortunately they don’t have a prospectus for Canada. 😦

But I want to try all the BrewDog beers. 🙂

I like BrewDog’s openness, playfulness, and inventiveness. The benefits for shareholders in the prospectus are especially fun. They don’t use Creative Commons (recipes aren’t copyrightable) but they’ve embraced open sharing as a means of building community and understand the benefits that come with that.

Monique Belair at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges sent me this amazing story on underwater vertical farming.


Winner of the 2015 Fuller Challenge Bren Smith’s TEDTalk tells his amazing personal story. In his Medium article Bren has this to say about the bigger transformation context.

“Our goal is to build a just foundation for the blue-green economy. Saving the seas is not enough. There is 40 percent unemployment in my hometown. I wouldn’t be doing this work unless it created jobs for my people, unless it opened up new opportunities for the 3 billion folks who depend on our oceans to make a living.

For the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to grow food the right way, provide good middle-class jobs, restore ecosystem, and feed the planet.

Our old economy is crumbling. The old economy is built on the arrogance of growth at all costs, profiting from pollution, and the refusal to share economic gains with 99 percent of Americans. But out of the ashes of the old economy, together we are building something new based on new-economy principles of collaboration, community-driven innovation, shared profits, and meeting social needs. Because ocean agriculture is still in its infancy, we have the unprecedented opportunity to build a model from scratch, to build from the bottom up an economy that works for everyone, not just a few. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of industrial agriculture and aquaculture. This is our chance to do food right.

We addressed the first question of farm replication and scale, not by patenting or franchising — those are tools of the old economy — but by open-sourcing our farming model so that anybody with 20 acres and a boat and $30,000 can start his or her own farm.”

Bren Smith’s identification of the new-economy principles as being about collaboration, community-driven innovation, shared profits, and meeting social needs is very much part of what we are finding with Creative Commons open business models.

We’ve received tons of suggestions that we interview companies that have a open business model based on free and open source software. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how hugely important, popular, and influential free and open source software has become.

We’ve received suggestions that we look at Gimp, Audacity, Synfig, Inkscape, VLC, Joomla, Ubuntu, and many more. As fascinating as these are free and open source software have their own special non-Creative Commons licenses. Given our open business models work is focused on Creative Commons use we’ve not interviewed them. However, I do want to acknowledge that there are many diverse and compelling open business models based on free and open source software and the suggestions we’ve received are great examples of another piece of the larger open context.

I’ve always admired the work of Eric Raymond who defined a taxonomy of open source software business models in his essay The Magic Cauldron (also included in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar). If you have any interest in open business models I highly encourage you to read Raymond’s work.


The Magic Cauldron uses clever and memorable descriptors like, “Widget Frosting”, “Give Away the Recipe Open a Restaurant”, and “Accessorizing” to define categories of businesses and the ways they generate revenue. There are lots of commonalities between open source software business models and those based on use of Creative Commons so the reading is well worth your time.

We’ve also received suggestions that we interview businesses that are based on open hardware. Companies like littleBits for example. littleBits mission is “to democratize hardware by empowering everyone to create inventions, large and small, with our platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks.” This kind of mission which talks about democratizing and empowering everyone is very much in line with Creative Commons based open business models. It’s a theme that is central to the larger context and bigger transformation I’m seeing. While littleBits licenses its web site with a Creative Commons license the core of their business makes the circuit designs for its modules available via the CERN Hardware License.

One of the signals that a bigger transformation is taking place are the many different licenses in play for making things open. While Creative Commons has become the de facto standard for licensing content to be open others have created licenses for making software and hardware open.

Some licenses attempt to mitigate the traditional economies tendency to extract and exploit. While most of these licenses are not yet in use they are nonetheless fascinating to look at in the larger context. The CopyFair license and the Peer Production License are good examples of licenses in development that try to instil more reciprocity. The Commons Transition organization is developing projects and featuring stories that map out the potential for commons-based reciprocity licenses. All these licenses share a common belief that value and innovation are maximized through open sharing rather than closed hoarding. The larger context includes harmonious use of these licenses to change the default way of operating from closed to open and engage in business in such a way that the benefits of sharing are reciprocal.

The larger context also includes some aspects of the sharing economy. Shareable is doing the best job I know of making evident the social and economic transformations being generated by the sharing economy. And I should be clear upfront I’m not talking about Uber and AirBnB who in my view co-opted the sharing economy term but in fact are examples of traditional approaches that try to maximize extraction value for themselves.

Shareable’s list of the Top 10 Sharing Economy Predictions for 2016 are full of examples of the larger context I’m exploring. Everything from platform cooperatives, sharing cities, and combining global open design communities with local production all are part of this larger context and bigger transformation. They all advocate for a shift of value distribution to address economic inequality.

Finally I want to hint at something even bigger that this work has led me to explore — economic transformation. Books like What Then Must We Do, The Ecology of Law, and Postcapitalism all do a great job of describing the historical context of how we came to choose free market capitalism as the ideal form of economy. They describe the social and ecological problems it has produced, and the transformation needed to improve global well-being. As Paul Mason says in Postcapitalism, “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

Creative Commons open business models are part of this larger context, this bigger transformation prefiguring what comes next.

Originally published April 18, 2016 on Medium as part of Creative Commons open business models work.

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What is an Open Business Model and How Can You Generate Revenue?

What is an Open Business Model and How Can You Generate Revenue?

Money by Xavier Vergés CC BY

In this post I describe what an open business model is and some of the many ways to generate revenue while still licensing things to be free and open using Creative Commons. My goal is to help you find ways to build sustainable and thriving open business models.

We’re discovering a rich diversity of open business models that use Creative Commons. There isn’t one model, there are many.

We set out with the goal of depicting open business models across different sectors and from different parts of the world. To business sector and geographic diversity we’ve added model diversity. With our interviews we’re aiming to show as many types of Creative Commons based open business models as possible.

I’ve been especially impressed at how many different types of businesses are using Creative Commons licenses. Writers, musicians, furniture designers and manufacturers, visual symbol creators and distributors, educators, games developers, hardware manufacturers, publishers, researchers, art museums, journalists, technology platforms… The list goes on. Use of Creative Commons by business is not niche.

It’s been even more interesting to discover a diverse range of business models being used across these different sectors. With each new interview we hear different ideas on how Creative Commons is being used as part of a successful model. I feel a kind of unexpected wonder and delight with each new model. Like receiving a gift and glimpse of an alternative kind of economy just emerging.

What is a business model?

The phrase business model conjures up different things to different people. For some of our interviewees the very idea of a business model is dissonant with how they think about what they do. Others are very much aligned with the concept of a business model, have thought deeply about it, and speak eloquently about its many dimensions.

Everyone we interviewed can describe what they do and how it has evolved over time. But not everyone uses business speak and for some the process has been experimental, emergent, and organic rather than carefully planned and following some pre-defined model.

Entering into this work Sarah and I drew on the Business Model Generation handbook as a frame of reference for defining a business model.

business model generation book

Developed using an open process over 9 years, involving 470 co-authors from 45 countries the business model canvas described in the Business Model Generation handbook establishes a common framework for understanding the core building blocks of a business model.

The canvas is used to design business models by answering a set of questions in each of the nine core building blocks. Its an interactive process that allows for rapid prototyping and careful consideration. It’s useful for establishing a common reference for what we mean by the phrase “business model” and providing a framework for talking about it and thinking about it more strategically.

The authors of the Business Model Generation handbook licensed the business model canvas with a CC BY-SA Creative Commons license. This allowed us to adapt it, adding in additional building blocks, Social Good, CC License, and Overall Environment Open Business Fits In, as additional components “open” businesses explicitly need to define as part of their open business model.

We created a GoogleDoc open business model canvas template with associated questions as a useful tool for creating your own open business model. Open the open business model canvas template in Google Docs, then from the File Menu choose Save a copy …, give it a name and you’ll have your own editable version. Into each building block enter your answers to the questions. Once complete you have a one page depiction of your open business model that can be used for discussion, planning, and communicating.

We’ve used these tools a lot ourselves in open business model workshops we’ve conducted and in analyzing and providing advice and feedback on others existing or newly designed open business models.

Revenue Generation +

Many people equate a business model to one thing — revenue generation. “Just tell me how I can make money?” I get asked. Open business models are not for those who just want to get rich and if that’s your only interest an open business model may not be for you. As the open business model canvas shows, a business model is more multi-faceted than simply making money and to fully understand it mapping out all the building blocks is essential. Most organizations and businesses using Creative Commons are in business for reasons other than money.

However, given the overwhelming interest in understanding how revenue generation works when Creative Commons licensing works I thought I’d focus this post on that topic and use real examples from the interviews we’ve done to illustrate a range of possibilities.

Revenue Generation

Method #1: Digital to Physical

Many of the businesses and organizations we’ve interviewed operate at the interface between digital goods and physical goods. In this model digital goods are openly licensed with Creative Commons and made available online for free.

This generates all kinds of value for both the creator and society including:

  • access
  • participation
  • innovation
  • reputation

… to name but a few. These open benefits are generalizable to all the open business models but worth stating here upfront.

When a digital good is converted into a physical good costs are incurred. Money is required for the raw physical resources themselves and for the production of the physical output. Then there are the significant additional costs associated with physical good storage, replication, and distribution.

Digital to physical can also apply to digital works available online under a free open license but in person performances, appearances, or services costing money.

The conversion of bits to atoms is a point of transaction where revenue generation for many of the businesses we interviewed happens.

Example #1: OpenDesk has curated a collection of digital designs for furniture from a range of international designers. Designs are Creative Commons licensed and can be downloaded and customized by users to fit their specific needs. Users can make furniture themselves from the design for non-commercial use in a do-it-yourself fashion. However conversion of a digital design into physical pieces of wood usually requires specialized milling tools controlled by computers.


OpenDesk has partnered with maker businesses all over the world that have such tools. A special part of OpenDesks business model is enabling localized manufacturing close to where you live. Localized manufacturing generates a huge range of benefits including increased business for small local businesses and a more eco-friendly method of manufacturing that dramatically reduces things like storage and transportation costs. OpenDesk and their designers make revenue when a user wants a local maker to do the cutting for them.

When customers buy an OpenDesk product directly from a registered maker they pay:
1. the manufacturing cost as set by the maker
2. a design fee for the designer
3. a percentage fee to the OpenDesk platform

Conversion of digital to physical is an important part of the OpenDesk model.

Example #2: Cards Against Humanity one of the most popular table-top games of all times started out as a game Max Temkin and friends put together to play at a New Year’s Eve party. The game generated huge laughs and they decided to work on it some more, refining the writing to make it better. They created a .pdf of the cards that make up the game and a set of descriptions for printing it out and playing it and posted it online under a Creative Commons Attribution BY NC-SA license.

Thousands of people downloaded and played it generating a lot of positive word of mouth and interest. They began to receive requests from people who wanted to simply purchase the boxed Cards Against Humanity set directly from them rather than printing it out and making it themselves. This led them to run a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to manufacture the game. The initial print run sold out quickly and led to ongoing growth and diversification into custom card packs and many other spin-offs.


The Creative Commons license let people make a fan based version of the game and remix. A search on YouTube for Cards Against Humanity generates hundreds of thousands of videos with fans sharing remixes, humorous game play, and expansions. As Max Temkin put it to us “the license sanctioned this and became a fantastic form of marketing.”

The Cards Against Humanity team use quirky irreverent humour and candor to further differentiate themselves and establish a unique brand. For example check out the way they engage with Black Friday:

2015 Black Friday

2014 Black Friday

Conversion of digital to physical is where Cards Against Humanity generates money. The business formula is simple. Max describes it as, “Make product, sell product, make it for less than you sell.”

Method #2: Direct Connect

In the past musicians, writers, artists and other creators had to first find an agent, record label, publisher, or other third party to represent them. This intermediary sat between the creator and their hoped for fans and played three roles — 1. judged whether their work was worthy of publishing 2. invested in supporting creation of the work, and 3. acted as the representative and distributor of the work to the public.

The “direct connect” open business model eliminates creator reliance on such middle man intermediaries. Instead, creators use the Internet to go direct to fans, readers, and their audience. They openly license their work using Creative Commons licenses, put it up online and invite everyone to listen, read, use, and distribute it.

Rather than restricting access to the work until payment is received, it is freely given away with an explicit invitation to copy it and share it with others. Fans and audience are the ones who, through word of mouth, have a promotion and distribution role. This leverages the unique social affordances of the web.

Going direct to your audience is only one part of this model. The creators we’ve interviewed also make an extensive effort to “connect” with their fans. They post images, they tweet, they Facebook, they blog, and use other forms of social media to represent themselves directly to fans. Sharing daily lives, experiences, and insights is a form of open transparency that deepens fans understanding, interest, and trust. It invites connection, dialogue, and a bond. It creates relationship and establishes a channel for reciprocal exchange. It makes people interested in the work you do and want to support you in doing it.

A kind of reciprocity emerges with creators when they celebrate and promote derivative works their audience creates including things like fan fiction, music remixes, and video .

Direct connect revenue methods include:

Donations — this method appeals to users, fans, and audience for a small donation that goes toward costs. The donation model tries to spread costs across a large number of small personal donations.

Example: Wikipedia is one of the world’s top ten most popular web sites viewed more than 15 billion times every month. Wikipedia text content is licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike CC BY-SA. Wikipedia runs an annual donation fundraising campaign. A small donation from a percentage of users can actually fulfill revenue needs. In 2014 over 2.5 million users made an average donation of $15.


Pay-what-you-can — this method asks fans when they download a work to pay an amount of their own choosing.

Example: The song-a-day musician Jonathan Mann licenses his songs CC BY-NC and offers them for download with a Buy Now — name your price option. See his Every Day EP for example.


Free and for sale — This method makes works available as both a free openly licensed download and a for sale item through traditional channels.

Example: Author Cory Doctorow licenses his books CC BY-NC-SA making them available as a free openly licensed download but also selling them through booksellers. See his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for example.


Crowdfunding — this direct connect method is a direct appeal to fans for upfront funds to create a work with the promise of making it available to them on completion, open licensing it for further distribution, and providing other rewards.

Example: Sarah and I used Kickstarter to crowdfund the writing of this book on open business models.


Unlatching — this method, a variant of crowdfunding, appeals not to the “crowd” but to a specific group to aggregate upfront funding to make a resource open.

Example: Knowledge Unlatched forms coalitions of libraries to underwrite the publishing of monographs under a Creative Commons license. Funds provided by each library are pooled to pay for the commissioning, proofreading, design, and everything you have to do in advance to get to first digital copy. In exchange for this fixed amount title fee publishers make the book available to anyone, anywhere to read or download for free under a Creative Commons license. With the title fee a fixed amount the greater the number of libraries participating the lower the cost per library.

KU_UnlatchesAgain (1)

Patrons — this direct connect method asks fans to commit to providing an amount of money for each work you create on an ongoing per item or monthly basis.

Example: Amanda Palmer has over 7,000 patrons on Patreon who are willing to fund her creation of new songs, film clips/music videos, long-form writing, and more random, unpredictable art-things at $33,840 per “thing”. She creates about one “thing” per month.


Method #3: Matchmaking

Technology platforms play a unique role acting as a bridge matchmaking creators of openly licensed goods with those who need those goods. In a sense, platforms play the third party intermediary role eliminated in the “direct connect” model. They are the new web based intermediaries representing creators and matchmaking supply and demand.

Platforms offer creators of Creative Commons licensed goods a place to upload and store their work. Platforms provide functionality enabling creators to establish an online presence and identity which serves as a means of online promotion and marketing building a creator’s reputation over time. That’s the supply side.

On the demand side, platforms provide users seeking specific types of openly licensed works a one-stop shop destination for finding resources they may be interested in. Platforms usually support search, browse, and download.

Many platforms create value for themselves by becoming the destination for openly licensed works. However, platforms do not always provide reciprocal value (beyond reputation) for the creators who are putting their openly licensed works on the platform. For our interviews, we focused on platforms who go beyond merely hosting openly licensed content by offering creators additional matchmaking support.

Example #1: The Noun Project is a platform for visual symbols and icons. The Noun Project aggregates and curates symbols and icons from a global network and profiles the designers of each work. Icons and symbols are licensed Attribution CC BY. There are currently over 150,000 icons available.


Users can download and use the icons and symbols for free as long as they abide by the CC BY license and give attribution to the original creator. Revenue is generated when users do not want to give attribution. Using the symbols without attribution requires users to pay. In addition the Noun Project has built out a range of additional tools and services to support bulk use for a fee, integration of symbols and icons to apps using an API, and is about to release a new Lingo app for organizing collections. All these additional tools generate revenue. Revenue is split between designers and the Noun Project.

Example #2: Tribe of Noise is a fast-growing online community which represents over 20.000 artists from 170 countries and supplies music (licenses) to the film, TV, video production, gaming, and in-store media industry.


Tribe of Noise offers musicians two options. To generate awareness and interest in your music, you can upload music to your profile in the community (under a CC 4.0 BY-ShareAlike license) which allows others to share and remix your song free of charge — even for commercial projects — as long as they attribute the work and license their project under the same license.

The second option is to upload music to the Tribe of Noise PRO licensing platform (under a non-exclusive exploitation contract). Tribe of Noise curates what music is posted on the PRO platform and also helps those musicians secure music deals. Revenue generated through those deals is split between Tribe of Noise and the artist.

Method #4: Value-Add Services

In this method services are built on top of a resource that is free and open. Revenue is generated through sale of premium services rather than sale of the resource itself.

There are lots of different value-add service model types:

Customization — this value-add service type charges for customization services.

Example #1: Figshare is a repository where academics and other users can make all of their research outputs available in a citable, shareable, and discoverable manner. Figshare offers a free service for academics to upload, store, and share their research as openly licensed CC BY resources, and their data as CC0 (note: CC0 is not a license per se but a Creative Commons no rights reserved way of putting works into the public domain.)


Figshare offers paid customized services for publishers and institutions. Institutions can get their own custom branded implementation of Figshare along with data metrics, data management (public or private storage), data dissemination, and user group administration. Publishers get to upload data and resources associated with their research articles which generates click through to the journals themselves and are provided with data visualization tools.

These custom paid services by institutions and publishers fund the free Figshare service to academics.

Example #2: Musician Jonathan Mann builds reputation by licensing his songs CC BY-NC but will write a custom acoustic or produced song for a fee. He says this about this custom service “My superpower is that I can take any idea, no matter how complex, and distill it down into a short, catchy, memorable song.”


Hosted Supported Service — this value-add service type charges a fee for hosted and supported access and use of openly licensed resources.

Example: Lumen Learning curates Creative Commons licensed education content into Candela courses which provide a set of low cost e-textbook alternative to expensive commercial textbook high enrolment college courses. These courses can be accessed for free off Lumen’s site. Or, alternatively, for a fee, these courses can be integrated into a college learning management system with additional faculty and technical support services.


Lumen courseware places no paywall between students and the materials they need to succeed in their courses, so every student enjoys day one digital access to course content through the LMS. Instead of a student paywall, Lumen contracts with institutions for a low-cost $10 per student fee based on the number of students enrolled in Lumen-supported courses. Many Lumen clients recoup this cost with a course materials fee.

Supplemental Resources — This value-add service type charges a fee for resources that supplement a core Creative Commons licensed resource.

Example: OpenStax provides free, Creative Commons CC BY licensed, peer-reviewed, high quality textbooks for college courses. OpenStax partners with with third party companies that provide, for a fee, high quality online homework tools that supplement those books. A portion of the fee generated from these supplemental resources goes back to OpenStax as a way of sustaining their business model.


Training and Education — this value-add service type charges a fee for training and education related to Creative Commons licensed resources.

Example: The Open Data Institute connects, equips and inspires people around the world to innovate with open data. Open data is data that anyone can access, use or share. When big companies or governments release non-personal data, it enables small businesses, citizens and medical researchers to develop resources which make crucial improvements to their communities. Data is usually made open through Creative Commons CC0.

Open data is free and open but the Open Data Institute offers courses and training for a fee on the benefits, opportunities and practices associated with open data.

Method #5: Members

One of the surprising results of our work so far is the absence of advertising as a revenue generation component of open business models. There seems to be a general abhorrence of advertising and a sense that it conflicts with mission and adversely affects business perception.

Instead of advertising some rely on members, sponsors or partners to directly fund creation and availability of Creative Commons openly licensed content.

Example: The Conversation is a reliable source of high quality, evidence-based information and news. It aims to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. The Conversation licenses its content Attribution CC BY-ND.

The Conversation ensures its integrity by only obtaining non-partisan sponsorship from education, government, and private partners. To avoid commercial conflict it takes no advertising and doesn’t carry advertising pop-ups or annoying autoplay.

The Conversation information and news is generated through partnerships with scholars at universities. Professional editors at The Conversation work with academics to convert their expertise into something understandable and readable by the public.

The Conversation generates revenue through a university membership model. Universities are massively deep repositories of research, knowledge and expertise but a lot of that stays behind the paywall of their own walled garden or ivory tower. Being part of The Conversation helps universities get good at presenting their knowledge and information to the general public and increase the reputation of their scholars.

Mix and Match

Open business models use diverse means to generate revenue. Many of the businesses and organizations we interviewed make use of more than one method mixing and matching them together.

The integration of different methods is an area of open business model innovation. Combinations can be devised to custom-fit a particular business purpose and generate unique value and differentiation. Diversification of revenue methods mitigates risk and provides multiple paths to sustainability.

Revenue = a means to an end

The initial draft of this post aimed to define a taxonomy of open business model types. Based on feedback from Sarah and our co-creators (thank you co-creators) I decided to shift it to simply depicting methods of open business model revenue generation. It became clear to me that an open business model taxonomy cannot be based solely on revenue and that more work was needed to ensure an open business taxonomy was based on facets other than money.

For open business models revenue generation is a means to an end, not the end itself. The end game for everyone we’ve spoken to is not profit but impact.

Traditional business models start with exclusivity, denying access to a good until money is paid. There is no impact without first a financial transaction.

Open business models start with inclusivity, participation, and universal access. Impact is enabled up front and revenue generation follows.

I hope this post helps you see this difference and realize that just because a business is open doesn’t mean it can’t generate revenue. In many ways I think open business models are more sustainable and beneficial to the world than closed ones.

Go open and prosper.

Originally published on Medium March 6, 2016. Special thanks to Sarah Pearson and co-creators Bernd Numberger, Benedikt Foit, and Jason Blasso for their many suggestions and improvements to this post.

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Open Business Models – Recommended Reading
January 9, 2016, 9:22 am
Filed under: Creative Commons, open business models, Uncategorized
Originally published on Medium 7-Jan-2016.
Paul’s open business models reading library from 2015

Sarah and I read a ton of books related to open business models in 2015. We’ve referenced a few of them in our writings. The picture above shows most of the books I read in 2015. They are all interesting in their own way (and I encourage you to read them all) but I thought I’d create a 2015 top 10 recommended book reading list from the collection along with a few notes on why each book is of interest. If you have recommendations for books we should read in 2016 leave a note with your suggestion.

1. The Art of Asking
by Amanda Palmer

The best open business model related book I read in 2015. Amanda Palmer’s personal account of her evolution as an artist and the methods she uses toconnect with and get financial support from her fans and followers shows what is truly possible. This is a must read book for anyone trying to transition to an open business model that relies on community engagement.

2. Business Model Generation Handbook
by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur

This book establishes a common framework for understanding what makes up a business model. It provides a business model canvas with nine core building blocks and corresponding set of questions as a tool for designing and prototyping business models. In 2015 our Creative Commons open business model initiative remixed and modified this canvas into an open business model canvas and associated questions. We used this for everything from analyzing how open companies are, to designing open business models for startups, and as a hands on activity in workshops helping people create their own open business model. Try it out for yourself!

3. Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity, and the Commons
by Max Haiven

Suggests capitalism encloses time, communities, resources, the environment and even our imagination creating a kind of futility and cynicism. Calls for a radical re-imagining of value and taking back collective creative cooperative action separate from the market and government. Promotes the creation of a new commons of social reproduction outside the command and control of capital, including new and rekindled forms of community care, horizontal and grassroots democratic decision-making and local production. Also calls for reclaiming public institutions (schools, hospitals, public works) from the market in the name of the public and increasingly democratizing and rendering these institutions common, so as to “avoid the enclosure of public bodies by bureaucracy and crypto-capitalist models of ‘efficiency.’”

4. Free Knowledge — Confronting the Commodification of Knowledge
Edited by Patricia W. Elliott and Daryl H. Hepting

This book is a wonderful collection of essays exploring how knowledge is generated and shared, and to what purpose. It pays particular attention to the rapid appropriation of public knowledge for private benefit around the globe and across multiple sectors and disciplines. Specific examples in education, the pharmaceutical industry, biomedical research, and even seeds are explored. Alternatives to this commodification of knowledge are described including indigenous and traditional knowledge and open access research publishing. Some pretty profound emerging ideas reframing the future are put forward including the economics of information in a post-carbon economy and the study of abundance. An a-ha book for me as referenced in earlier Medium writings.

5. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin

This book describes how the capitalist era is passing and being replaced with a new economic paradigm it calls the “collaborative commons”. It documents how the collaborative commons is changing a wide range of fields from renewable energy, to marketing, logistics, transport, education, manufacturing and health care. It explores how the two economic systems currently work in tandem and sometimes compete. However it argues that technologies impact on the economy has already created a marginal cost of zero model that wreaks havoc with the capitalist model and new forms of sharing and collaboration are further leading to its decline. A fascinating depiction of an emerging new economy.

6. Governing Knowledge Commons
Edited by: Brett Frischmann, Michael Madison, and Katherine Strandberg

This book contributes to evidence-based policy making about innovation and creative production in the knowledge commons. It draws on Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning work around natural resource based commons and adapts that work to the knowledge and information commons. It’s an important book for the way it adds a third approach to traditional views of methods for promoting innovation and creativity. The two traditional approaches are, 1. innovation systems organized around markets, supported by intellectual property rights directed to exclusivity and ownership, and 2. innovation systems organized around governments, which intervene in markets in various ways to sponsor and subsidize innovation. The third approach explored in this book is commons-based sharing of knowledge and information to produce innovation and creativity.

7. Society 3.0
by Ronald van den Hoff

Written by one of our Kickstarter backers this book describes society in transition. It documents how the web, social capital, and value networks, are creating an interdependent economy and new ways of not only doing business but functioning as a society. It shows how this transition is playing out in the environment, work, money, democracy, education, health and even the organization of businesses. Written with a particular critical eye on the state of affairs in Europe this book describes and advocates for new ways of governing and functioning as a society. It provides some good insights on social, co-creation, and transactional business concepts with specific suggestions and examples of how to set up and operate a new kind of business.

8. Think Like a Commoner
by David Bollier

This book traces the history of the commons and dispels the myth of the “tragedy of the commons”. It presents the commons as an ageless paradigm of cooperation and fairness and suggests that it is re-emerging as a practical new form of self-governance and production controlled by people themselves. A key aspect of this book is helping us all think differently and seeing the commons as a framework for social action and value production. Does a good job of exploring the logic of the market and the commons.

9. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
by Lewis Hyde

Not a new book but an important one for the way it explores the artist’s dilemma. At its core this book investigates the way that “every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange.” Examines the anthropology of gifts as a kind of property and gift exchange as a kind of commerce. Important for the way it delineates the differences between a gift and a commodity and for describing the human aspects of gift giving and sharing.

10. Information Doesn’t Want to be Free — Laws for the Internet Age
by Cory Doctorow

Quoting the promotional blurb “Can small artists still thrive in the Internet era? Can giant record labels avoid alienating their audiences? This is a book about the pitfalls and the opportunities that creative industries (and individuals) are confronting today — about how the old models have failed or found new footing, and about what might soon replace them.” As others have done it emphasizes the importance of building an audience through open sharing. It also examines past business strategies of creative industries and shows how they have been adapted to the Internet. Most provocative of all it looks at how ever increasing copyright laws mess up artists and endanger privacy, freedom and our digital lives.

A short summary of what I have learned from this collection of books goes like this:

  • The commons has been increasingly enclosed and commoditized by government and market forces for decades.
  • Technology and the Internet have generated a distributed and participatory means of production and can store and distribute goods at near zero cost.
  • Zero marginal cost creates abundance (or the potential for abundance) which traditional market economics has no model for.
  • The commons has new relevance, particularly the digital commons, and is re-emerging as an important alternate means of achieving social and economic aims.
  • The commons is not just a place with content and resources but a social process, enabled by technology, that involves people participating, co-operating, sharing, and collaborating.
  • The social process of commons practice is affecting all sectors of society including education, manufacturing, health, energy, work, and even money itself.
  • The re-emerging commons does not mean the elimination of business or work but does mean business and work are done differently.
  • Commons-based ways of working and doing business are being invented right now and must co-exist and sometimes compete with existing models.
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