First Monday

Open content and value creation

Open content and value creation by Magnus Cedergren
The borderline between production and consumption of media content is not so clear as it used to be. For example on the Internet, many people put a lot of effort into producing personal homepages in the absence of personal compensation. They publish everything from holiday pictures to complete Web directories. Illegal exchange of media material is another important trend that has a negative impact on the media industry.

In this paper, I consider open content as an important development track in the media landscape of tomorrow. I define open content as content possible for others to improve and redistribute and/or content that is produced without any consideration of immediate financial reward — often collectively within a virtual community. The open content phenomenon can to some extent be compared to the phenomenon of open source. Production within a virtual community is one possible source of open content. Another possible source is content in the public domain. This could be sound, pictures, movies or texts that have no copyright, in legal terms.

Which are the driving forces for the cooperation between players that work with open content? This knowledge could be essential in order to understand the dynamics of business development, technical design and legal aspects in this field. In this paper I focus on these driving forces and the relationships between these players.

I have studied three major open content projects. In my analysis, I have used Gordijn’s (2002) value modeling method "e3value", modified for open content value creation and value chains. Open content value chains look much the same as commercial value chains, but there are also some major differences. In a commercial value chain, the consumers’ needs trigger the entire chain of value creation. My studies indicate that an open content value chain is often triggered by what the creators and producers wish to make available as open content.

Motivations in non-monetary forms play a crucial role in the creation of open content value chains and value. My study of these aspects is based on Feller and Fitzgerald’s (2002) three perspectives on motivations underlying participation in the creation of open source software.


Research issues and methods
Three value models with open content
On the driving forces behind open content
Discussion and conclusions





Personal homepages have created new opportunities for people to publish in completely new ways. At the same time, peer-to-peer networks make it possible for millions of people to copy media material, both legally and illegally. Media companies try to find lasting solutions for their future online business that sometime might be hard to find.

I consider open content as an important development track in the media landscape of tomorrow. I think a lot of value is created, even if traditional business models of the media business cannot always be applied.

In this paper, I describe my studies of three major open content projects. I make value models for the value chains of the projects. I also compare the driving forces of the three projects and try to draw conclusions about the driving forces of open content.

A working definition of open content

What do I mean by open content? In this paper, open content is defined as content produced not-for-profit — often collectively — with the intentional purpose of making content available for further distribution and improvement by others at no cost.

The term "open content" can be found in a special license for content, which was inspired by licenses for products developed as open source. The open content license simply codifies the definition, that a specific form or quantity of content is available for use, distribution and improvement, for free. At the same time, this license provides for some limitations on how specific content could be used for profit.

What does the word content mean in this context? Here I use the same definition for content that is used in the open content license: "Content is just about anything that isn’t executable". It could be anything digital — that is, anything that could be distributed or acessed electronically — that is not software. This sort of content could be images, audio files, movies and text.

Lessig (2001) provided a context for this content. He was inspired by Benkler (2000) and by theories of network architecture. He defined a model with three layers of communication: A physical layer, a code layer and a content layer. The physical layer represents the physical transfer, e.g. the computer or the wires that link a computer to the internet. The code layer consists of hardware, protocols and software that enable intercommuter and network communication. The content layer features the files that actually are transmitted in communication: Images, audio files, movies, etc.

Open content from a systems perspective

What are the driving forces encouraging cooperation between open content players? Understanding these forces is essential in order to understand the dynamics of business development, technical design and legal aspects in this field.

I consider open content from of a systems perspective. In this case, the term "systems" means both technical systems for creating, distributing and using the content, as well as systems of actors cooperating in the production and distribution of the content. Value is created at different places and the cooperation between players is of crucial importance.

Distribution via the Internet is an important cornerstone of open content. Another important issue is a high level of automation for distribution and improvement. For that you need licenses, protocols and markup languages. How should systems for production and distribution of open content be designed? To answer that question, you have to know more about value creation and cooperation between the various participants in open content. This paper deals with these questions.



Research issues and methods

Issues of value creation are essential in considering open content. The general issue of this paper is

It is possible to describe open content collaboration as a system, a value chain. There are many similarities between this system and commercial value chains, for example the collaboration between a newspaper and news agency. However, this paper is limited to improvement and distribution of open content via the Internet.

Relative to e-business, Sweet and Brehmer (2002) summarize theories about value chains and value creation. They compare value chains with another metaphor, value constellation. Normally a value chain is a linear sequence of suppliers, all improving and adding value to a product. A value constellation, on the other hand, is not linear. On the contrary, it describes a less linear collaboration between different parties.

In this paper, I use the more traditional term "value chain". It is not an easy choice, and at the end of the paper I show that several metaphors could be used for open content.

I use some simple and well-defined categories for the basic parties in the value chain: Producer, distributor, Internet portal and consumer (see Figure 1). There are some other roles as well: License creators and people handling catalogs containing the other parties.

Of course, Figure 1 is a simplified version of Internet-based open content collaboration: In reality, these value chains are not so linear. For example, a producer has relationships with many creators and distributors and an Internet portal gains material from several sources. Also, Figure 1 is somewhat theoretical. In reality, many parties consist of combinations of these roles. For example, a producer may sometimes take on the role of an internet portal.

In considering these value chains, there is some need for some basic data on the operational aspects of the chains. Can we answer some basic questions: What is exactly exchanged? Is there some valuation for content exchanged? I assume that participants don’t act out of self-sacrifice, but that they do it to get something in return for what they offer. Their gain may consist of something else than money though, and it could be so subtle things as increased reputation, future favors, etc.

This paper is divided in two parts. In the first part I introduce a e3value, a method to model value chains. With this method I model three cases of open content, and try to find similarities and differences between value chains of Open Content and traditional value chains.

This study leads to a more detailed issue, the focus of the second part of this paper:

The second part consists of a more detailed study of these three cases. Here I try to identify some driving forces behind open content. The reported results are based on an empirical material where I have interviewed some individuals representing three projects. The questions asked were inspired in part by Feller and Fitzgerald (2002) and Barlow (1994).



Three value models with open content

In a first approach, I will describe some existing value chains, with open content as their major component. For this, I will use a special modelling method.

Gordijn (2002) describes e3value as a method to valuate business ideas of electronic services. The method is suitable for business ideas, based on digital products, e.g. digital content, financial services, communication services and, to some extent, energy services. The main idea is to make a graphical, value model, where you can draw lines of value exchanges between two parties. These value exchanges show parties exchanging goods and services of economic value. From these exchanges, you may build complete value chains, and trace the value exchanges in several steps. Here I have chosen this method for value models based on open content.

In this section, I try to model some value chains of Open Content, using this method. Before that, I describe the method a little more in detail. Then I build value models with these three existing value chains. Finally, I describe the most important observation I found while working with the models. These models also work as an introduction to this study.

Value modeling with e3value

This section provides a summary of Gordijn (2002) on the most important properties of e3value. In applying this method to open content, in fact I use a slightly limited version of the original method.

Figure 2 is from Gordijn (2002) and it provides a summary of this methodology. Obviously, this example is not about open content but instead commercial content. It describes the values (economic value or practical usage) you can find in business relationships between different parties: Consumers, media companies and telecom operators (at several levels).

An "actor" is defined as an independent, economic entity. In a commercial case, an actor either makes a profit or increases the utility of content. In the illustrated example, the newspaper and telecom operators are examples of actors. The consumer is also an actor.

Actors exchange "value objects", which are products, services, money or consumer experiences. A value object must contain value for at least one of the actors. To access an article online (a service in the Figure 2) is an example of a value object.

A "value exchange" represents one or more potential trade of value objects between actors. In Figure 2, the reader gains the value object "article online", in exchange for the value object "article fee".

The actors perform their value exchange through a "value interface". The value interface groups the value exchanges for a certain actor.

A scenario path consists of one or more segments of the value chain, with a "start stimulus" and a "stop stimulus". In e3value it is assumed that a consumer need, as a start stimulus, triggers a chain reaction of value exchanges, all following a scenario path. The corresponding stop stimulus represents what the activities of the last actor in the value chain. In Figure 2 the start stimulus is represented by the needs of the reader, and the stop stimulus is represented by the actions of the local operator.

Some value chains containing open content

For this study, I have selected three cases. In all of these cases open content is a major component. All three projects have the role of producer in their respective value chain. They also allow others to re-publish content as open content.

These projects were chosen because of their size. It is very likely that these three projects are among the larger ones of their type on the Internet based on the quantity of data and interest expressed by end users:

Below I model these products as value chains. Actors dealing with open content play a significant part in the models. In order to make the models easier to read, I have included some commercial actors, like advertisers.

The models are represent a first approximation, based on a superficial survey. In addition, the models also provide simplified perspectives on the projects. There could be more value objects in the value exchanges; however according to e3value, you should focus on the major value objects.

Since these models are approximations, a value object is an assumption. Furthermore, in some cases I have not succeeded in identifying any value object, represented by a question mark in figures below.

Prelinger’s movies

Archivist Rick Prelinger has collected more than 10,000 different movies. Many of them are characterized as "ephemeral" or temporary. Given the nature of many of these films, it has been possible for Prelinger to digitize and offer them as public domain content of the Internet (number 1 in Figure 3). A variety of of movies are in the collection such as corporate, educational, and official information movies as well as advertisements. The digitized versions (number 2 in Figure 3) are in the public domain, so they can by used by anyone generally without strict legal conditions.

The movies are distributed via a Web site at The movies are generally of high quality and length requiring a broadband Internet connection for downloading. Prelinger’s activities are financed by profits secured from selling high-quality stock footage (number 3 in Figure 3), but non-profit uses of digital stock provide a variety of opportunities for re-use and enhancement of content.

Figure 3 is based on an assumption that a portal re-distributes a variety of movies from the site. For example, it could be a Web site offering selected movies to its customers via a media server. Advertising on this portal could then be a revenue source (number 4 in Figure 3). In the figure, I have also examined an alternative case where a film producer uses stock footage of high quality (number 5).

Open Directory Project (ODP)

The Open Directory Project ( is operated by Netscape/America Online, part of the media giant Time Warner. The project is probably right now the largest open content project. About 50,000 volunteers work on a huge hyperlink catalog (number 1 in Figure 4). ODP is probably on the scale of Yahoo! with links hierarchically organized.

Content is available freely (number 2 in Figure 4). Google, among other sites, uses ODP. ODP requires in return for the use of its content a small banner, recruiting new editors. The banner also provides feedback to ODP editors.

In the value model, I have also considered a small Web site InstantDirectory ( It offers an interface of ODP to other Web sites (numbers 3 and 4 in Figure 4).


Wikipedia ( is based on Wiki, a simple but effective technology. In a Wiki Web site, all users may edit much of the content on the site. Wikipedia’s goal is to build a collectively created online encyclopedia, offered as open content. Like ODP, Wikipedia has an almost countless number of editors. The major difference from ODP is the organization. Wikipedia’s organization could be described as anarchistic compared to the organization of ODP, which is very hierarchic. There is also another difference: The content of Wikipedia does not appear often outside of Wikipedia’s own site. Some parts of the model are therefore marked with broken lines.

An observation

These three simple value models represent different areas and different kinds of value exchanges. Despite the differences, I will make observations based on similarities:

For open content, complex stimuli control value exchanges, compared to stimuli involved in for-profit sites and ventures.

In an ideal case, commercial value chains are triggered by a customer’s need. Normally, a customer’s need corresponds to a start stimulus in the scenario path.

In the open content cases considered in this paper, value chains are not easily described by a single scenario path. There is not a simply equivalency of the needs of the customers to the content offered on a given Web site. On the contrary, it seems as if producers and creators decide what to offer, based on what they would like to offer as open content. To some extent it seems as if producers are controlling value chains, independent of the demands of consumers. Hence in these cases, a value chain for open content is not as linear as those value chains of commercial content.

Hence, what driving forces control the value exchange in open content value models?



On the driving forces behind open content

For every project examined in this paper, I have identified one suitable person to interview to provide further details. Each actor has a dominant role in the value chain, either as a producer or as a content distributor. I assume that these individuals represent the eqauivalent of "management" and have relevant vision and knowledge about each project in question. I have therefore chosen to interview an individual, who has, or has had, a leading role in the specific project for quite a long time. I will call these persons O1 for ODP and W1 for Wikipedia respectively. For Prelinger’s movies I have interviewed Rick Prelinger (P1).

To make the study a little broader I have also interviewed a Swedish participant each from the ODP and Wikipedia projects (the collective projects). They are here called O2 and W2.

For this study, I was inspired by two existing theories:

My interview questions are based in part on these previous studies.

The actor’s motivation

In this paper I am interested in the motivation of the actors involved in open content to find connections to a value model. My starting point is the classification of driving forces of open source in Feller and Fitzgerald (2002).

Feller and Fitzgerald summarize different types of motivation behind open content. Their classification consists of three major types: Technical, economic and socio-political motivation. Each type is then divided in two levels: A micro level for individual motivation and a macro level for organizational or community based motivation. Participating in a open source project could, for example, help you with a future career (economic motivation on the micro level) or you could be very convinced that the software should be free for everyone to use (socio-political motivation on the macro level).

A number of the questions I asked were inspired by Feller and Fitzgerald. It was however necessary for me to alter these questions, as Feller and Fitzgerald deal with open source, not open content. The technical questions were complemented with questions about content and content creation. Issues about economic and socio-political motivation were combined with questions about value chains (Feller and Fitzgerald’s classification primarily deals with development only within a community). I also assume that an actor’s motivations are complex, so I was really looking for several driving forces.

The value of content

I also included questions about the value of the content based in part on Barlow’s views of the "economy of ideas". Barlow's perspective is certainly a more philosophical description of the economy of information. Barlow defines a taxonomy of information, that is a "description of the true nature of information" in three different ways:

Barlow views that we, to a large extent, treat value chains of information like we treat value chains of physical products, even if the conditions are very different. Barlow’s taxonomy could be criticized as being too sweeping and unfounded. This taxonomy has been an inspiration for me to find the value of open content from the perspective of the user.


The results show that the answers based on Feller and Fitzgerald’s classification are clearer and easier to interpret, than those based on Barlow’s. I could not find any structure in the answers that support Barlow’s classification. On the contrary, I consider that the largest value of the results can be found in the individual answers. I have listed all possible driving forces, and identified typical properties of the individual project. To do that, I have only used answers which clearly point to a trend in the project.

I have compared the results from all three projects in order to find driving forces that are common to all of the projects. From this analysis it seems like the following list of driving forces are the most important in all of the cases. In parenthesis I have classified the driving force by comparing it to the classifications from Feller and Fitzgerald (FF) and Barlow (B):

Below, I concisely describe what these driving forces look like in the different projects:

It is a stimulating task to work together

In all of the projects, there are tasks that the editors find stimulating or fun to work with. This study shows that open content projects provide:

W2 remarks about working on Wikipedia:

"The joy working together with others. The freedom to create things without a boss, supervisor or tutor. To share this feeling with others, within a community."

W1 adds about Wikipedia:

"What they all have in common is the idea that they are working together with a lot of other people. Coming to a sort of consensus statement about issues that might be controversial."

In several cases, the work is compared to a political process. A lot of editors believe that they learn how political processes work. One example is ODP: When working in the project, the editors are forced to work in a structured way. The details of how to do this — the rules — are intensively discussed among the collective of editors.

It is important to learn new stuff

All of the open content projects work with knowledge, in one way or another and in quite different areas. The editors are provided with new opportunities to learn, whether it is an editor working with links in ODP, or it is another editor working with articles in Wikipedia or it is Rick Prelinger working with his movies. This value in knowledge acquisition is repeatedly stated in all studied projects, so it appears to be an important driving force.

The possibility for feedback

In all of the examined projects there are abundant opportunities for end users to provide feedback to editors. A user can use e-mail, mailing lists, discussion forums or forms to send comments and to discuss content.

As there are several steps in a given value chain, links between editor and end user could easily be broken. However, for example, the license of ODP demands a hyperlink in the value chain, permitting messages to travel from the end user to an editor.

In all three projects ego gratification could be a possible motivation. It seems that the possibility for feedback is an important driving force.

Intrinsic motivation

Many editors seem to have an intrinsic motivation to work with open content. W2 indicated that the editors of Wikipedia often are intrinsically motivated to write and to describe things. O1 indicated that the editors’ motivation to work with ODP is strongest in the beginning. He compares it with the situation of buying a new game and in a short time playing with it for 50 hours.

P1 describes his own motivation to work with movies:

"Archives are usually inaccessible, so I want to make them accessible. Usually it is very expensive to use film material, so I want to make it free. ... We don’t like the idea of too many levels of mediation. Now we have the technology to deliver information to people quickly and very inexpensively. So my motivation is to find a place of opening the system of access to historical information, especially if it can benefit everybody."

Altruism, even if the content is used commercially

In all of the projects, the editors have a certain feeling of altruism, working for the benefit of a community or society, the public good. P1, for example, wants to open movie archives and make content available to the public:

"There is a tremendous amount of very valuable historical and cultural material that is held in archival films."

ODP is another example, one of the few catalogs on the Internet available for free. It is a strong motivation for the editors, O1 says, to keep it available as open content.

Despite the feeling of contributing to the public good, not all editors demand that content should remain completely non-commercial. It seems that it doesn’t matter if other actors financially benefit from open content. The only condition is that content is distributed as open content.

For example, Google reuses open content commercially, such as content from ODP. It might appear as a paradox that ODP’s editors volunteer to help Google profit. For some, publicity is an overriding factor, rather than profitability.

Prelinger’s movies are another example of commercial reuse. Some movies have been used as stock footage in commercials. P1 is very well aware of this use and encourages it, as a basis to maintain open content for a larger and more diverse audience.

No interest in the media business; Open Content as a new business opportunity

Open content may be an interesting option for tomorrow’s media businesses. That vision appears in several of the projects examined, where some editors are quite uninterested in today's media businesses.

P1 suggested that current media companies are stuck in old-fashioned business models. He indicated that some companies will have to re-think their business models and adopt a version of his own divided business model.

O1 cynically stated that if the companies don’t change their business models, advertising will become part of all creative works, such as music: "The only time it is possible to be paid for a song is when you sing about a product."

In many other economic contexts, people talk about the consumer as co-producer. O1 means that this will happen in the media business if the copyright restrictions don’t stop it. He stated that there is almost a war going on, all centred around copyright. If a media giant uses public domain information, the eventual product is copyrighted and heavily protected. If another artist uses the same public domain content as a starting point, he may face severe legal intimidation for potentially using the same source material that led to a copyrighted work.

P1 also indicated that the development of tools is of crucial importance in movies. There has to be more user-friendly software tools that make it possible for end users to manipulate content based on movies.

Possibility for publicity

Since open content is spread amon many actors in the value chain, there are abundant possibilities for publicity and promotion. In several of the projects examined in this study this seems to be an important driving force. P1 noted:

"When you deal with imagery, ubiquity is a good thing. The value is not diluted by being used, seen, showed ... The more that our material is present in the culture, the more people will use it."

Publicity can be effective in several ways, such as the means to recruit new editors. ODP effectively ties publicity to use with a license that demands a hyperlink that states simply: "Become an editor. Help build the largest human-edited directory on the Web".

Is it useful if open content is used commercially? Responses in the interviews indicated that "the possibility for publicity" is a potential motivation.

Possibility for indirect revenue

Several of the projects have been used to explore new possibilities for indirect revenue. In the case of ODP, content has been "recycled" on other sites that use a variety of advertisements as sources of income. In some small part, some of this income eventually benefits ODP.

P1’s divided business model has been more successful than models of many content-based Web sites. P1 gives away his movies for free but at the same time sells high-quality stock footage to large media companies.

Benefits for the end user

Benefits for end users seems to be one of the most important driving forces behind open content. O2 remarked that ODP makes it possible for average Internet users to get a basic understanding of a specific subject. W1 indicated that the typical Wikipedia user arrives at Wikipedia through Google and then looks for details on certain kinds of subjects.

P1 thought that most people look at his movies for entertainment or education. He believed that the content is important for both. Movies are also important to film projects on a low budget; indeed some movies would not have been produced if it wasn’t for his material.



Discussion and conclusions

A model of the driving forces behind open content

The classifications of Feller and Fitzgerald (2002) and Barlow (1994) are not completely useful in explaining the driving forces behind open content. One important reason is that most of the driving forces are not exactly described in the classification structures: Some are classified as technical motivations on a micro level and others are described as economic and socio-political motivations.

In the first part of this paper, I tried to apply e3value to open content projects. I found that start and stop stimuli (that are normally used in e3value) could not be used for open content. Value chains for open content are much more complex.

Figure 6 is a sumary of my new model, where I describe the driving forces in a theoretical open content value chain. My model is therefore based on the value exchanges of e3value, and not primarily on Feller and Fitzgerald (2002) or Barlow (1994). Some of the driving forces are closely connected to the value exchanges between actors in the value chain. On the other hand, some have more in common with personal motivation or benefits to society as a whole.

Like all models, this model has limitations: First, I have only included the most important driving forces, described earlier in this paper. There are probably a number of possible driving forces that are relevant, but they are not included in this model. Second, the selection is limited, since it is based on a mere three cases.

In Figure 6, the rectangles represent major actors in the value chain: The producer and the end user. The middleman is indicated by a broken line. The driving forces are represented by arrows and dotted headlines.

This study primarily considered the producer’s perspective. A larger study would attempt to gain more information about all of the actors in the value chain, not only about the producer. In order to do this, it is necessary to gather as much information as possible about complex stimuli. Therefore, I consider this study only as a first step. The model needs to be refined and confirmed in future studies.

Practical use of the model

Who needs this model? My hope is that all actors in open content value chains will consider using the model. The model can be a starting point for a discussion of how open content can be increasingly benficial to larger and more diverse audiences on the Internet. The model could also be for technical purposes, to develop tools for editors as well as refining protocols and markup languages.


My results could be compared with Rehn (2001) who has studied the so-called software development "gift " culture. Rehn examined a special sub-culture is called "Warez", comparing it to other ethnographical studies. Value creation in this sub-culture is done in several steps, just as in open content value chains. These value exchanges can be described simply as: Gift giving of software makes you the ruler in the Warez sub-culture. There is a similar description about open source value exchanges in Bergquist and Ljungberg (2001): Giving free software is rewarded with reputation in the programmer’s community.

Perhaps the best explanation is that the value chain contains mixed triggers, that is a mix of end users and producers/creators. The driving forces are not only a part of the value chain, but also parts of personal motivations and benefits to the society.

Could the term "value constellation" be useful for open content? For some producers and creators, it is more important than for others in the value chain. A new study could verify this complex issue. Additional studies could also explore e3value as a tool for a variety of content developers and creators. In addition, the hierarchic structure of some content developers could also be explored. End of article


About the Author

Magnus Cedergren is a graduate student in Computer Science and Media Technology at Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. He is also a Program Manager in the Services and IT implementation department at the national Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems (VINNOVA). Magnus Cedergren also runs a national portal Web service and an online gaming service.



I thank Nils Enlund and Daniel Pargman, KTH; Karl Einar Sjödin, Bogumil Hausman, Ulf Eklund and Pernilla Rydmark, VINNOVA for their comments and support. I would also like to thank my mother, Ingrid Andersson for support with the English language.



J.P. Barlow, 1994. "The economy of ideas," Wired, volume 2, number 3 (March), pp. 84-90, 126-129.

Y. Benkler, 2000. "From consumers to users: Shifting the deeper structures of regulation towards sustainable commons and user access," Federal Communication Law Journal, volume 52, pp. 561-579, and at

M. Bergquist and J. Ljungberg, 2001. "The power of gifts: Organising social relationships in open source communities," Information Systems Journal, volume 11, number 4 (October), pp. 305-320.

J. Feller and B. Fitzgerald, 2002. Understanding open source software development. London: Pearson Education.

J. Gordijn, 2002. "Value based requirements engineering: Exploring innovative e-commerce ideas," dissertation at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and at

L. Lessig, 2001. The future of ideas: The fate of the commons in a connected world. New York: Random House.

A. Rehn, 2001. "Electronic potlatch: A study on new technologies and primitive economic behaviors," dissertation at Royal Technical Institute, Stockholm.

P. Sweet and P.-O. Brehmer, 2002. "e-Business Value Strategies," In: e-Business Value Creation. Report from Marknadstekniskt Centrum, Stockholm, pp. 29-37.

Editorial history

Paper received 17 June 2003; accepted 28 July 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Magnus Cedergren

Open content and value creation by Magnus Cedergren
First Monday, volume 8, number 8 (August 2003),