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Strategic insights
The Old World of Media Licensing

Written by on April 26, 2013

Last night as I was finishing an article, I was sharply reminded by just how ridiculous the media licensing industry is. Not only are they still living in a print world, they also requiring all their customers to live in that world, preventing publishers like me from licensing their products and using them online.

But before we go into that, let me tell you a story of something that happened to me ten years ago. At the time, I was working for one of the largest fashion companies in the country, as their 'digital manager'.

This was back when the TV series "Sex and the City" was in full swing and extremely popular. And since one of our brands (we had several) was right smack in the middle of that target group, our marketing team thought it would be a great idea to get one of the 'Sex and the City' actors to model for us.

The result was that we hired Kristin Davis to be our model for three months.

It was a brilliant idea from the perspective of advertising. We have the right products, the right target market, the right celebrity, and it was all done at the right time and place. In terms of ROI, this campaign was a huge success.

...except for me.

You see, when the CEO and CMO arranged the deal with Kristin's agent, they completely forgot about the web. The result was they only bought the print-only rights to use Kristin Davis in our advertising.

They came back with all these wonderful pictures, I started working on creating a plan for how to create the best digital campaign imaginable. Until someone remembered to tell me that I couldn't use any of the pictures online.

Wait... what??? Are you freaking kidding me? I can't use this? What the heck I'm supposed to do then?

I ended up being forced to create a digital strategy that used none of the pictures, nor did it mention Kristin Davis or Sex and the City in any way. When people went to our websites, we were only showing our normal (and very boring) model pictures.

Can you imagine how surreal this must have seen for our customers and shops? Here we had this brilliant print campaign, but when people went to our website to learn more, there was no mention of it. All because the images were licenced for print only.

Actually, it was even worse than that. The images were not only restricted to a single format, they were also restricted for use within a specific time. Which meant that we had to point out to the press that they couldn't use them in their magazine if the next issue exceeded that limit.

It was just awful. And I don't blame the CEO or CMO for this. It's wasn't their fault. The fault was in how media licensing works in the world of print. It's designed around these limitations. That's the business model.

Of course, even with all these limitations, the campaign was still a huge success. But just imagine how much more we could have done if we had been allowed to use it digitally as well.

Surely this is not how it works today, Right?

It's now been ten years, so surely in today's connected world where digital is taking over everything, this *must* have been fixed? But no.

These forms of licensing limitations are just as much a problem today as they were 10 years ago. The world of media licensing is still operating as if digital was never invented.

Take Getty Images. It's a wonderful photo site filled with perhaps the best pictures you could ever want. The quality of the pictures on Getty Images is often far higher than what you will find anywhere else. But the licence for Getty Images' rights managed photos are impossible to use in the digital world.

Last night, as I mentioned, I needed to find a photo and, after failing to find anything useful anywhere else, I turned to Getty Images. Within seconds I found just the photo I needed, and decide to buy a license for it. Except, this was what I got:

First I was asked to define what the image would be used for. It makes sense to differentiate between advertising and editorials. With advertising, you imply an association with the people or places in the images and the brands using it, and that not always acceptable.

With editorials, you don't have the same association. So it makes sense to define that some images can or cannot use for one or the other. But Getty Images goes a step further and demands that you define whether you are a newspaper, magazine, broadcast, or electronic... in other words, what format it is.

What if I'm doing a broadcast that is used on more than one channel? Getty Images still lives in the old world of single channels. That world doesn't exist anymore. Look at New York Times. They have a printed, web and app newspaper. But on Getty images you have to choose only one.

Secondly, when choose 'editorial - electronic', you are only allowed to archive this image for up to five years. In other words, after five years, you are required to delete the article from your site.

I don't delete old article. Why would I do that? This a print mentality where the use of the material is limited to the print cycles. On the web, our content doesn't have an expiration date.

Next I had to define the specifics of how I'm going to use the image:

First they asked me about circulation, yet another thing that only exists in print. I have no idea what the circulation of an article is before I publish it. In print, you know because you define how many magazines you are going to print before you put them on the market.

In the digital world, we publish the article and the circulation is then determined by how popular the article is, and how much it is shared. I have articles on this site that has been seen more than one million times, and others that only reached a couple of thousand people.

I cannot define my 'circulation' because circulation is a print metric.

Even I choose to define it as, for instance, 100,000, it would completely wreck my site. Imagine if I purchased a license for 100,000, and the article then became so popular that more than those wanted to see it. Once I had reached 100,000 page views, I would be required to delete the article.

That simply isn't acceptable in the digital world.

Next they asked me about distribution, yet another element from the print world. This is the same print mentality that causes so many magazines to create iPad only apps.

The digital world is not defined by a single channel. It's defined by multiple channels. Imagine if I limited the image license to tablet and mobiles only. I would be required to disable sharing because, once people start to share an article, they are doing on the web.

This is just ridiculous.

Finally, I'm asked to define the duration, again another model from print. it makes a lot of sense when you are publishing monthly magazines. A monthly magazine needs a license for a monthly duration.

But the digital world doesn't work this way. We don't operate with durations. We don't know when something is going to end. The digital world is endless by default.

As you can see, not only do I have to define the duration (which I can't), I'm also limited to a maximum of two years. This just makes no sense from a digital perspective. It only makes sense in the print world where keeping something alive means doing extra print runs.

Next, Getty images ask me to define the target market, and yes, you guessed it, it's yet another thing that only exists in print.

In the print world, where you are limited to geographic regions (usually defined by country borders), it makes sense to only buy a photo for the country where you are selling your publication. But in the digital world, we don't have the limitation of geographic boundaries.

When I publish an article on this site, it is seen by people from more than 150 different countries. In the digital world, we don't define target markets in geographic terms. We define our target market in terms of the interest of people.

So the only way for me to license this picture is to buy a license for every single country on the planet. It's highly unlikely that I will get any visitors from Bhutan, I still have to buy the rights for it. I don't get to decide where you are coming from.

Also, if I have already defined my circulation, why do I have to define the country? If I buy the license for 100,000 views, what does it matter if it is in Germany, France, or both? It's just a useless limitation ... even in print.

But because print is naturally defined geographically, they insist I define it. They are creating limitations for the sake of limitations.

Yes, I could just buy royalty free images, but those are often more expensive and not as good as the rights-managed ones. But the problem here is that these licenses are impossible to use in the digital world.

I didn't understand this 10 years ago, and I certainly don't understand this today. But this is the fundamental problem with the world of media. Whenever a newspaper create an iPad only app, when a TV station limits a show to US viewers on HULU only, when a book publisher insists that a book cannot be purchased from Amazon.com by a person living in the UK, or when brands limits shipping to only a few countries, it's the same print mentality there is at play.

What people need to understand is that the digital world doesn't revolve around the format. That's not what this is about. The digital world is eliminating the limitations of the past.

  • We don't have a single channel
  • We don't have circulation figures
  • We don't have a limited publication cycle
  • What we publish doesn't end after one month
  • And we are certainly not defined by a country border

If you want to succeed in the world of digital, you have to let go of the limitations of the past. And when you do, you will realize just how much of today's media world that is defined by those very same limitations.

It's the limitations that prevent you from embracing the digital world. Stop defining your business around them!

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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