Content was once valuable. Then content about content, the metadata that identifies our content values and made them accessible, became a greater and more powerful value. Soon we stood at the edge of a universe where no searching would take place which did not involve machine interrogation of metadata. We evolved ever more complex systems of symbology to ensure that customers who used our content were locked into accepting our view of the content universe by virtue of accepting our coding and metadata, and using it in relation to third party content. Further, we passed into European law, in terms of the provisions of the so-called directive on the legal protection of databases, the notion that our metadata was itself a protectable database. Now content is less valuable, more commoditized, and inevitably widely copied. So it is our fall back position that our metadata contains the unique intellectual property and as long as we still have that in a place of safety we are secure. And can sleep easily in our beds.

Until the day before yesterday, that is. For on the 14 December the European Union’s Official Journal published a settlement offer from Thomson Reuters in an competition enquiry which has run for two years ( The case concerns Thomson Reuters’ use of its RICs codes. Insofar as they have become the standard way in which traded equities are described in datafeeds, the fact that the market bought the Reuters solution as a surrogate for standardization did give Thomson Reuters competitive advantage – and this is made clear by the fact that the Commission investigation was prompted by its commercial rivals. But that advantage was not unearnt, and the standardization that resulted from it brought benefits across the market. Now Thomson Reuters, to end the process, offers licensing deals and increased access to its metadata. This may turn out to be a momentous moment for the industry.

I have no interest here in examining whether Thomson Reuters are right or wrong to seek a deal. From Microsoft to Google to Apple, the frustrations of enquiries by the competition commissioner’s office in Brussels have worn down the best and most resilient. But I do want to comment om what may be happening here. If you accept my thesis that content is becoming increasingly commoditized and that systems for describing it are increasingly valuable, we may have to recalibrate our picture of what is happening as a result of this news. What if, in fact, the commoditization involved here spreads slowly up the entire information value chain over time. In this model, the famous value pyramid which we have all used to subjugate our audiences and colleagues is under commoditization water at its base, which is where raw data and published works are kept. Now the next level is becoming slightly damp from this rising tide, as descriptive modalities get prised off and become part of the common property of all information users. So information vendors scramble further up the pyramid, seeking dry land where ownership can be re-asserted. Maybe more advanced metadata will offer protection and enhance asset value. The Scorm dataset in an educational product can annotate learning outcomes and allow objects and assessment to be associated. Or, following the financial services theme here, maybe we add Celerity-style intelligence to content which allows a news release to be “read” in machine-to-machine dialogue, and trading actions sparked by the understanding created. We will certainly do all these things, because no one will buy our services if they do not accord with the most appropriate descriptive norms available. But will they protect our intellectual property in conent or data? No, I am increasingly afraid that they will not.

It will take many years to happen. And it will happen at a very different pace in different marketplaces. But the days when you valued a company by its content IP, by its copyrights and its unique ownership value have been over for some time. And now we can see that the higher order values are themselves becoming susceptible to competition regulation which seems, in this age, to over-ride IP rights in every instance. So what are we actually doing when we say we are building value? Normally, it seems to me, we are combining content with operational software systems to create value represented by utility. From the app to the workflow system, content retains its importance in the network because we shape it not just for research, but for action, for process, for communication. And that, after all, is where the definition of a networked society with a networked economy lies.

And if we were in doubt about this, reflect on the current pre-occupation about Big Data. Is our society going to be willing to hold up the vital release of “new” scientific knowledge from the ossified files of journal publishers just because some of this stuff is owned by Elsevier and some by Wiley? The water of analytic progress is already flowing around the dams of copyright ownership, and this week surged past a major player protecting his coding, though the proposed licensing scheme does leave a finger in the hole in the dyke. We seem to me to be running at ever greater speed towards a service economy in professional information where the only sustaining value is the customer appreciation of service given, measured in terms of productivity, process improvement, and compliance . These benefits will be created from content largely available on the open web, and increasingly using metadata standards which have gone generic and are now, like RICs, part of the common parlance of the networked marketplace. The language of IP in he information economy is getting to sound a bit old-fashioned.


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1 Comment so far

  1. Martin Hyndman on December 17, 2011 00:45

    Knowing how customers use comodity content within a value-add community or transaction is the new metadata gold mine imho.