Conceptual open content

Some clarifications on our experience with ‘free’ content

Over on the Gov2 blog a comment was posted that asked for more information about our experience at the Powerhouse with ‘giving away content’ for free.

I’d be interested to know more about your experience with Flickr and your resulting sales increase. Are these print sales or licensing sales? And are they sales, through your in-house service, of the identical images you have on Flickr, or are you using a set of images on Flickr as a ‘teaser’ to a premium set of images you hold in reserve? How open is this open access? I am trying to understand the mindset of users in an open access environment who will migrate from ‘free use’ to ‘pay-for use’ for identical content, as this makes no sense, either commercially or psychologically, unless there is additional service or other value-add.

Whilst I communicated privately a lengthy response I think some of it is valuable to post here to clarify and build upon the initial findings published by my colleague Paula Bray earlier this year.

Here’s what I wrote. Some of this will be familiar to regular readers, some of it is new.

(Please also bear in mind that I am focussing here on predominantly economic/cost-related issues. Regular readers will know that our involvement in the Commons on Flickr has been largely driven by community and mission-related reasons – don’t take this post as a rebuff of those primary aims)

First a couple of things that are crucial for understanding the nuances of our situation (and how it differs, say from that of other institutions, galleries, museums)

  1. The Powerhouse is, more or less, a science museum in its ‘style’ (although not by our collection). Our exhibitions have traditionally, since our re-launch/re-naming in 1988, been heavy on ‘interactivity’ (in an 80s kind of way), and ‘hands on’. We aren’t known for our photographic or image collections and we haven’t done pure photographic exhibitions (at least for the last 15 years).
  2. Consequently we have a small income target for image sales. This target doesn’t even attempt to cover the salaries of the two staff in our Photo Library.
  3. In 2007/8 around 72% of our income was from State government funding.
  4. The Powerhouse has an entry charge for adults, and children aged 4 and over. In 2007/8 this made up 65% of the remainder of our income. Museum membership (which entitles free entry) added a further 8%.

(You can find these figures in our annual reports)

So what have we found by releasing images into the Commons on Flickr?

Firstly we’ve been able to connect with the community that inhabits Flickr to help us better document and locate the images that we have put there. This has revealed to us a huge amount about the images in our collection – especially as these images weren’t particularly well documented in the first place. This has incurred a resource cost to us of course in terms of sifting responses and then fact checking by curatorial staff. But this resource cost is outweighed by the value of the information we are getting back from the community.

Secondly we’ve been able to reach much wider audiences and better deliver on our mission. The first 4 weeks of these images being in Flickr eclipsed an entire year’s worth of views coming from the same images on our own website. Our images were already readily Google-able and were also available through Picture Australia which is the National Library of Australia’s federated image and picture search.

(I’ve written about this quite a bit on the blog previously.)

Thirdly, we’ve found that as very few people knew we had these images in the first place, we’ve been able to grow the size of the market for them whilst simultaneously reducing the costs of supplying images.

How has this ‘reduced the costs’?

What Flickr has done is reduce the internal cost of delivering these images to “low economic/high mission value” clients such as teachers, school kids and private citizens. Rather than come through us to request ‘permission’ these clients can now directly download a 1024px version for use in their school projects or private work. The reduction in staff time and resource as a result of this is not to be underestimated, nor is the increased ease o use for clients.

At the same time, Flickr’s reach has opened up new “high economic/low mission value” client groups. Here I am talking about commercial publishers, broadcasters, and businesses. Commercial publishers and publishers want a specific resolution, crop or format and we can now charge for the supply in these formats. At the same time we are finding that we are now getting orders and requests from businesses that had never considered us as a source of such material. We are actively expanding our capacity to deliver art prints to meet the growing needs of businesses as a result.

It is about relationships and mission!

At the same time, we can now build other relationships with those clients – rather than seeing them only in the context of image sales. This might be through physical visitation, corporate venue hire, membership, or donations.

Likewise, we know that the exposure of our public domain images is leading to significant offers of other photographic collections to the Museum alongside other commercial opportunities around digitisation and preservation services. Notably we have also been trying to collapse and flatten the organisation so that business units and silos aren’t in negative competition internally – so we can actually see a 360 degree view of a visitor/patron/consumer/citizen.

One reply on “Some clarifications on our experience with ‘free’ content”

This is quite probably the most succinct yet complete summary of the answer to this FAQ I have ever seen. The arguments/reasoning is not new (although the precise numbers are very helpful) but, as you say, as far as an economic/cost justification for opening up goes – this is the best I’ve seen. As you mention there are important mission/moral/legal aspects to this approach also. But the economic must also be addressed.
Keep fighting the good fight Seb!

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