The Downsides of Licensed Content for Curation

When it comes to curated content, there are two predominant models for utilizing third party content: unlicensed content, and licensed content.  As you contemplate your curation strategy, it’s worth understanding the pro’s and con’s of each. Here’s a quick overview on each, and how to think about which is right for you.

The Unlicensed Content Modellicensed-content

The first and most popular option is to use unlicensed content from around the web.  In this model, the curator does not seek explicit permission from the content authors.  Instead the curator, keeping the fair use statute in mind, shares a small excerpt from the original text and clear attribution to the original article.  Readers of the curated content are then required to go back to the original publisher’s site to read the article in full.

The Licensed Content Model

The second model is to actually license the content from the original author and republish the original content in it’s entirety on the curator’s site. There are appealing properties of licensed content: (1) You get to provide a seamless reading experience. (2) You do not risk driving readers off your site. (3) You don’t have to worry about fair-use and how much content you take.

The Downsides of Curating Licensed Content

While the licensed content curation model is attractive on the outset, there are some obvious, and other not so apparent downsides, to building a curation destination on a licensed content model.

  • Limited Selection. With licensed content, your sources for third party content are severely constrained.  You can only curate content from sources with whom you either have a direct publishing relationship or with whom your licensed content provider has a relationship.  Most re-sellers of licensed content have relationships with only the largest mainstream publishers such as the Associated Presses and the Reuters of the world.

    As a result, for most content marketers focused on specific topics and niches, such as B2B marketers, who rely on specific trade publishers and blogs, licensed content is not an option.

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO). In order to avoid risking their original articles being confused as duplicate content, most publishers who license their content contractually obligate their licensees to include special directives in the syndicated content that forbid search engines from indexing the copies of the licensed content.  As a marketer, this means that if you use licensed content on your site, it will have little to no SEO value.

    For brands looking to simply engage their existing audience and provide a more seamless reading experience, licensed content may be an option. But most marketers are not only looking to engage with their existing audience, but grow their audience and readership through search engine traffic.  For the latter camp, licensed content is not a very compelling option.

  • Privacy. Licensed content usually comes with the stipulation that you have to include a provided pixel tracker with any piece of licensed content you re-publish.  In turn, this pixel tracker can cookie your readership, measure the efficacy of the content, and provide analytics back to the original publisher.

    While this is not a salient issue with most marketers, it could be one for marketers in regulated industries with strict privacy policies, or marketers who are sharing licensed content to an internal audience (e.g. competitive intelligence teams).

  • Modification & Editorialization. If you re-publish licensed content, you are typically required to republish the original in full with no modifications or edits so that you do not misrepresent or distort the views of the original publisher.

    As a result, some of the content curation best practices with regards to adding your own perspective, annotating content, and re-titling content to add value as a brand curator are difficult, at best, or out of reach, at worst, with licensed content.

  • Cost. Lastly, we should not forget cost.  While unlicensed content is free, licensed content carries inexpensive fees that can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year based on your breadth of content.

Which one is right for you?

If you can afford it, don’t have a strong need to attract new visitors via search engines, and tend to find sufficient relevant content from mainstream publishers, then licensed content may be for you. From a reading experience perspective, there’s nothing better than providing the full original content and keeping visitors within your own site.

But for most marketers, unlicensed content is the easiest way for them to feed the content beast.  If you can curate ethically, unlicensed content is free, ubiquitous, diverse and readily available.

Interested in getting started with content curation?  Download the 5 Simple Steps to Become a Content Curation Rockstar eBook.'

Pawan Deshpande is the founder and CEO of Curata. Pawan is responsible for the company's vision, management and advanced development initiatives. His work at Curata has been recognized through the 2010 Boston Business Journal's 40 under 40 Award, and through the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council's 2012 Sales & Marketing Technology of the Year Award. Pawan has held software engineering positions at Microsoft, Google and other startups where he was awarded patents in social networking and machine transliteration areas.

  • Mark W. White

    I question whether most of these supposed downsides are really serious issues. We at U.S. News & World Report license plenty of our content and do not require search-engine indexing to be blocked; there is no need for that because search engines can now tell when we originated the content. We also don’t require a pixel tracker. And we don’t prohibit licensees from commenting on our content as long as the commentary can be distinguished from the original content. I also have to ask whether uncurated content is really free. Isn’t someone paid to create it?

    • Pawan Deshpande

      It looks like you’re commenting about three of the issues I outlined in the post: (1) SEO, (2) Privacy, (3) Commentary, (4) Cost.

      On the topic of SEO, there are typically three ways that I have seen licensed content be syndicated to retain the SEO primacy of the original content creator’s version:
      1. Using a noindex directive so search engines don’t index the syndicated copy.
      2. Using a JavaScript embed so that search engines cannot read the syndicated content.
      3. Using a cannonical directive to point search engines to the original version.

      Based on what you described, you are saying search engines can reliable discern which copy is syndicated. Are you using a cannonical directive? Regardless, if the search engine is able to tell which version should be credited from an SEO perspective, then it’s not really helping the syndicated version.

      As I mentioned licensed content usually requires a pixel tracker. It’s great that you don’t force this on people who license your content.

      That’s a good point that you can add your commentary around the licensed content. It’s quite different than having the ability to intersperse your commentary. Commenting around the licensed content is akin to making a mix tape, where as interspersing your commentary is akin to making a remix. They both have different merits, but ultimately being able to intersperse your own commentary allows more creative freedoms.

      I think you mean “I also have to ask whether unlicensed content is really free. Isn’t someone paid to create it?” rather than uncurated content. Unlicensed content doesn’t have to come from a paid publication, it could be created by a hobbyist blogger for example. Regardless, even if you curate content from sources where the original authors have been paid, the cost of excerpting or linking to the content in an ethical manner is free as compared to licensing the full content outright. For more best practices on ethical curation, see: