Designing for the open digital commons

I wanted to share some thinking I’ve been doing around how to create products and services that embrace and support the digital commons. The digital commons is the growing wealth of openly licensed content and data that is now available to us all.

In order to benefit from the commons we need to look after it. Individual communities are best placed to manage the commons resources that matter to them most. And other organisations like the Internet Archive have a broader role in preserving the commons as a whole.

I think there are benefits, when designing a product or service, in spending a bit of time thinking about how it might interact with the commons. For example could it provide a means for users to contribute to the commons by adding more content, or by curating material that is already there, or enabling them to discover and use openly licensed resources.

Why build for the commons?

The commons is a public good. It’s a repository of cultural artefacts, educational resources, scientific research and more. In that light I would expect start-ups and other organisations to want to support the commons. To recognise that its a resource to be managed and shared for all.

However that’s arguably not enough. There are bottom-lines to think about. This means that there should be some business benefits for why you might want to build with the commons in mind. I think that amongst those benefits are that:

  • using and supporting openly licensed material demonstrates how seriously you value the choice and rights of your users. This can build confidence and trust in what you are creating
  • by clearly indicating your commitment to preserve user contributed content, it can encourage users to engage with new tools, platforms and services. No one needs or wants to migrate their content through another incredible journey
  • the commons provides a wealth of free resources that can be used to populate new platforms or provide raw materials for users working with your new tools. More users, more case studies, more impact are always good

There are undoubtedly many more reasons. The creative commons have started to capture how adding an element of openness can help build a business model.

Designing for the commons

But my goal here is isn’t to capture why open is good or why it can be good for business. What I want to do is to start a discussion about what thinking about the commons might mean in terms of how you design a product.

Here’s an initial list of principles. Let me know what you think is missing.

Allow users to export all of their own content and data

This principle isn’t specifically about the commons, but it forms the basis upon which users have full control over their own content and data.

It enables users to easily migrate between tools and platforms that allow them to publish, host or reuse their own material.

It enables self-archiving and sharing of open materials outside of your system.

Allow users to choose how to licence their own content, using a standard licence

The commons is built around standard open licences. Where possible, provide users with a choice of one of the standard Creative Commons licences.

If you’re building a specifically open platform, then you may only want to allow users to publish content if they’re doing so openly. See, for example services like Figshare, which requires users to publish their research data openly.

If you’re building a commercial platform, but are providing a free tier that allows users to publish or host content if it is public, then consider allowing or requiring them to apply an open licence to that material.

Open licences can also simplify your terms and conditions as they grant you the rights you require to store, distribute, and archive content in order to run your service. You don’t need users to grant you additional rights to host or store it to deliver a service.

Other considerations here are giving some thought to whether you can help users to:

  • set a sensible default licence for any material you are helping them to host or publish
  • manage licences of already published material
  • describe and share how they would like material to be attributed

Allow users to easily import and use openly licensed content

Allow people to draw on the commons when using your service or tool. For example if you’re building a data visualisation platform, help them discover openly licensed data that others have shared. Similarly if they’re publishing written content on your service, help them find openly licensed images or other material they can reuse.

Helping users to quickly gain value from your specific tool or service will benefit both you and the user.

Where you do enable reuse of openly licensed material, do what you can to ensure that attribution is properly handled. For example, as a minimum, allow a user to include an attribution statement when reusing some data or an image. If you can do this automatically, by drawing on machine-readable metadata about that content, then you should do so.

If you’re a hosting platform you might also want to think about how you can help users identify where their openly licensed material is being reused. This encourages a virtuous circle of sharing.

Allow all users to easily find openly licensed material you’re hosting

As a corollary to the above, allow users to easily find any openly licensed material that you’re hosting. At a minimum, ensure that the licence associated with content are clearly displayed.

If you’re providing a search or browse function then a useful additional would be adding a means to filter content based on licence. Flickr’s Creative Commons search remains an excellent example of this type of feature.

Allow the web to happen

Platforms should have “soft edges” that allow users to build links between material online. This might include ability to add rich text with links rather than just simple text boxes. Recognise that the rest of the web exists and that users will want to find their own way to bring together a variety of resources.

Allow users the freedom to collaboratively manage open resources

A thriving commons requires an engaged community who are actively contributing and benefiting from its resources. This involves not just publishing and reuse, but also collaborative management.

A good platform will recognise that users may have their own ideas and opinions about how best to organise material. Lightweight tagging and metadata tools can encourage this type of collaborative maintenance. Read “Fan Is A Tool Using Animal” for more on why community maintenance is something you might want to enable and encourage. Avoid trampling on community activity of this type.

You might also consider how users can transfer rights or ownership in material you’re hosting. Perhaps they’d like to step away from managing a resource but allow someone else to take over its stewardship.

Ensure that openly licensed materials are archived

Don’t leave archiving of content until you’re at the end of your incredible journey. Think about shutdownability.

If content and data is openly licensed then ensure that its preserved outside of your system. You don’t need extra permission to do this if there’s an open licence attached to it, but being transparent with users would be a good thing.

Support freemium or sponsorship models

Many platforms have a business model that is tied to the consumption of resources, e.g. a data marketplace might charge users accessing data via its APIs. Or a video platform might charge users for streaming of content.

Models that focus on use rather than hosting can encourage growth of the commons as it allows anyone to contribute.  Re-users then pay for the service level they need to access those sources. Freemium models are also common, allowing some low-level of reuse without incurring extra costs. This supports the commons and allows users to experiment (“try before you buy”) with the services you’re offering.

But a publisher might also want to make that data or content completely available for free at the point of use, e.g. by sponsoring or otherwise covering the costs of downstream users. This provides more options for how publishers want to distribute open resources.

Avoid adding terms and conditions that constrain use of openly licensed material

In short, avoid adding terms and conditions to your service that constrains how users can use the content or data that have been published under an open licence. E.g. additional defensive terms that say that material can only be used for personal use or cannot be redistributed.

Consider what you can contribute to the commons

Finally, even if the users of your product or service aren’t directly contributing material to the commons, think about how openness, e.g. open data, might be an element in your business model. For example sharing openly licensed metadata might drive discovery of material in your platform. Many sites are already publishing rich metadata to improve SEO. Adding an open licence to that material is a small step forward.

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