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Blog Networks and Blog Ownership

I’ve been following on with interest and fascination at John Battelle’s emerging FMPublishing project. John is attempting to build a publishing company that focusses upon high quality content (nothing too different so far) that attempts to keep the ownership of that content in the hands of the authors writing for it. It is a very hands off approach that I quite like.

One of the balancing acts that I’m seeing many blog networks grappling with is over this question of ownership and equity of the blog. Most people can see the benefit of a publishing network – but there is no obvious, tried and tested model at this stage that presents a win win situation for both publisher and author/editor.

Many of the issues I’m seeing authors and network owners struggling with revolve around ownership.

Who owns the blog, which party holds copyright, who has rights to take the content?

Some of the newer blog networks (like 9 Rules and Creative Weblogging) are offering authors ownership of their content and allow them to take what they write with them at the end of any relationship. The bigger networks like Weblogs Inc and Gawker do not – instead treating readers more like employees. Weblog Empire is walking a middle ground and has been talking of shared ownership where both parties take the content away from any relationship.

This is a tricky issue – whoever retains ownership holds considerable power in any relationship. If the publisher owns the blog then they are able to sell it at any point – if the author owns it they are able to walk away from the relationship without warning , taking an income stream away from the network.

Both sides might make a reasonable case for holding ownership:

Publishers need to cover their costs for things like hosting, sourcing advertising, design, promotion – and are entitled to their profits. They often sink significant funds into any partnership with a blogger. Some networks now employ people to look after the back end of the blogs that they own – their overheads are significant.

Bloggers on the other hand are the heartbeat of any blog – without them there is no blog. They too poor time and energy into their craft and deserve to be rewarded fairly for their efforts. At the same time the experience of Weblogs Inc shows that bloggers like a stable income – they moved away from a revenue share model to one of paying bloggers to write (payments tied to traffic of the blog).

The issue is and will always remain a sticky one. I’ve had conversations with a number of network bloggers (from a variety of networks) recently who have either complained of how they are being treated by their networks or have expressed concern for a lack of power in the relationships that they find themselves in. Whilst I’m sure network owners sometimes feel like they are getting a raw deal it seems to be authors themselves who are feeling most out of sorts in many circumstances.

One of the difficult elements of this issue is that over time, as blogs grow, the dynamics change. I can think of a couple of circumstances where agreements at the start of a relationship between author and blogger were mutually beneficial for both parties – but as the blogs grew authors felt they were left with less and less and risked losing it all if the publisher were to sell – after a year or two of investing themselves into a blog they feared they were just building someone else’s asset base.

I sympathize with both sides of the equation. I’d hate to work years on a project only to see it sold off to the benefit of someone else – however part of me wonders if this is ‘just life’ – after all isn’t it what happens in most businesses with employees?

So what is a win win model? I’ll be the first to say I don’t really know – however I’m watching the different emerging networks with real interest as they grapple with these and other important questions. I like to think there is some middle ground where incentive can be built in for all to benefit from the running of blog networks – however every time I try to come up with a model my head begins to hurt as it becomes complicated.

Interested in your thoughts on this issue – would you join a blog network? What would your preference be in terms of ownership, payments and incentives?

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Jacob G. says:

    I think that joining a blog network is not a bad idea at all as long as you get to retain ownership over the blog. Whoever owns the blog has the power. The only reason I would probably ever consider joining a blog network is for the exposure. I think however, in the long run, that it may be best to stay on your own. If you write good stuff, people will come.

  2. Not that this will help the argument, but I feel compelled to add: the friction between authors and publishers is as old as publishing itself.

    I hope to join a network, since the benefits seem huge. But I think that as soon as you give up ownership of your material, you’re no longer a blogger. Instead, you’re a journalist. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it comes with a different mindset. My 2 cents.

  3. Jason says:

    >> Sme of the newer blog networks are offering authors
    >> ownership of their content and allow them to take
    >> what they write with them at the end of any relationship

    This was our original model in fact. However, 19 out of 20 folks we talked to wanted to just get paid for their work and take no risk… i think it’s great that people are still championing our original model since I think the 1 out of 20 people need a place to go…. we just can’t be all things to all people.

    And you obviously can’t build a business where you give people both compelete ownership and cash up front (i.e. no risk)… just not a fair deal to the publisher/shareholders.

    best j

  4. Darren says:

    Good comment Jason.

    The more I think about it the more I’m realising that there is really no bad model (ok – one or two of the models I’ve seen could be bad) but instead different networks will suit different bloggers. Its about working out a ‘best fit’ and seeing what is most compatible with your goals.

    If you want a more stable guaranteed income what you guys are offering sounds best, if you want to build a blog and retain control over it one of the other networks might fit better – if you want to have complete control and not share the earnings at all – don’t join a network.

  5. Duncan Riley says:

    Just on Jacobs comments, whilst I can see where he is coming from no network is going to sign over rights to the actual blog to the blogger, if a network owner or owners are going to invest time and money in a blog they are going to want to own the blog, unless its in some sort of associate partnership (it’s something I’m talking to a few people about now). Having said this I’m hopping the compromise at Weblog Empire may be more appealing, sure you don’t get to to keep the blog if you walk away, but you do get to take a copy of content with you, which you can do with what you please. As a contributor to a network blog you are mostly contributing content so I see it only fair under a shared revenue structure that content ownership is also share to an extent.

    Having said this though Jason’s model is the way of the future so to speak and the better model of the lot, however the risk exposure and start up funds are also higher so the option is quite limited to the smaller networks until they get to the point of having a reasonable flow of revenue.

    I’d also note on the issue of concerns of some network bloggers in relation to investing their time in blogs only to risk ownership change or loss that its a risk to everyone, but at the end of the day network blogging does offer great potential at building profiles, personalities and can be looked at either in two ways, an opportunity to make money and perhaps even a full time job, or a stepping stone onto something bigger and better. Think about some of the people Nick Denton has employed who have gone onto media jobs, other blog networks and the like, they may have been relatively well known before hand but the Gawker Media blogs turned them into stars. Sure, they invested time and didn’t get ownership, but the benefits of the exposure for the couple of years have arguable set them up for life, so I’d argue that its a win:win all round.

  6. Shai Coggins says:

    As a blogger, I would never sign off ownership of my content to anyone (— unless I get paid a good price for it?!). That’s why I kept this in mind when I started my own network. At this stage, I’m working on the model whereby the network “owns” the blog itself, but the blogger keeps the content he/she creates — just like some of the others (Duncan’s Weblog Empire, etc.).

  7. Tom Hanna says:

    Hmmm…I’ve been publishing all my content under a Creative Commons license with a “by” and “share alike” requirement. I even allow commercial use. All I expect is attribution as I figure that will drive traffic, if I ever write anything that anyone feels is worth copying. If I were running a network, that CC license would mean that at the end of the relationship the blogger and the company could both use the content – the same as anyone else.