Platforms, Content and Duplication

As we continue to develop CanLII as a content platform and start to work more on developing original content, I have been thinking about the tension between platforms which gain value from lots of content, and organizations that create content as their primary value proposition.

The observation may be trite, but to illustrate my point using more general examples, Google and Facebook are examples of platforms that gain from having additional volume while devaluing each individual piece of content. Newspapers and magazines provide value primarily through the content they create.

In legal information we have analogous organizations with similar needs and motivations, and sometimes both perspectives exist within single companies. I recall having conversations with representatives from Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis Canada, when I spent time trying to acquire legal publications, asking them to make it more apparent what content is in their big online platforms, what’s available as an ebook on a separate platform, and what’s available in print. Even now I haven’t been able to easily find a page on their websites that will tell me what formats each title is available in.

I interpret this to be because the people responsible for promoting the different platforms are in tension with the people responsible for creating much of the content. The platforms are sold as units with a grouping of content in them, while the units responsible for creating individual titles and selling print copies want each publication to get individual attention. It is a deliberate choice to hide these connections (when I asked about this and suggested that the websites could list where content was available, I was asked if I had a relationship with a sales person who could help me navigate it).

With broad platforms, each piece of information contributes value to the platform, but when there are so many, they may each be worth less than if it were considered individually. You can tell this, because sometimes publishers remove titles from their platforms, and to my knowledge they don’t reduce the price of their contracts when this happens. In contrast, for the core users of a particular document who would buy something in print, the value of that content is worth acquiring on its own.

If you think about how to maximize revenue from a particular piece of content, aggregating it with other information likely diminishes its value to the core group of people who would pay for the title as a stand alone title. But there is also increased use among people who might not have accessed a title without serendipitously finding it through a platform.

Which brings us back to CanLII and what happens in the space where legal information is available without paywalls. I have spoken with many people since we started soliciting content from law reviews in 2017. Some see the potential of sharing their content on CanLII and getting the added visibility from those who aren’t looking for their content in particular. Others see a threat: that if their publications are shown beside so much other content then they may not seem as valuable. This is especially true of content that may be (or may seem to be) duplicative. On a site with millions of documents, there are probably several that cover any particular topic.

I wonder how many pieces of information are actually duplicative though. Xavier Beauchamp-Tremblay tells me that he looks up topics he wants to write about as he thinks of them, and when he finds that someone else addressed it already will decide not to write about it. I confess I don’t worry about that too much. At some point everything has been said already, and it’s all just perspective. I would never consider managing a law library collection of any size without having more than one book on contracts. Many pieces of information are duplicative. They may not need to be redone, but each brings some nuance that others lack.

It will be interesting to see how these dynamics interact into the future.

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