Saturday, April 2, 2011

Toward an Open Source television studio

In the software world, Open Source software has won. The last holdouts are still fighting the good fight, but the idea that you develop software in the open, while building a business model around local extensions, support and professional services takes such a myriad of forms that it's now hard to imagine a world without Open Source. Apple, Google, IBM, Red Hat, Oracle, VMware... they all make heavy use of and contribute to Open Source software.

Many have tried to apply this model to other areas. Wikipedia is probably the best known example of a non-software Open Source project, but there are many others. In Japan there's even a virtual pop star whose music and videos are essentially a gigantic Open Source project. Today, I got to thinking about what Open Source television would be like, and I think it would be very interesting. Here's how I'd see it working:

A studio or consortium of studios develop a setting and some central players. Let's say you want to set a comedy in a business (like The Office). You develop a "bible," as the industry calls it, that describes the business in some detail; its important players, background and the elements of the world that it's in that differ from the real world, if any. Then, you write a second bible that describes the show in terms of main characters, the shape of any given episode and some of the stylistic signatures. You release the first part as Open Source (say, under CC-By-SA), but the second half is proprietary.

Each time you release and episode, the show itself is licensed as normal, but you revise the setting with any new details that you've developed in your show.

Legal concerns: Television is a complicated world, and there's certainly much more scrutiny of where ideas come from and who owns them than in other industries. Because of this, it might be necessary to build some protections into the licensing of the open source piece That's a hurdle, to be sure, but I don't think it's a very high one.

As time goes on, the creator studio can continue to build new open or proprietary content in this world, licensing it as they see fit. Others can publish open source shows, books or other media set in the same world, but they cannot re-use the specific characters or details from the proprietary shows.

This gives the broadest number of options to the original creators of the show, but if a vibrant ecosystem forms around this nucleus then it probably makes sense to start publishing new content as open source. After all, television makes its money on advertising, and there is still going to be a demand for seeing episodes when they first air, which drives the audience numbers, which yields ad revenue.

In terms of secondary revenue such as DVD sales, proprietary shows will still have control. Open source shows will not, but there are ways around that. Special boxed sets, signed by the cast, for example, could drive sales of the original (this brings up a point: it may also be necessary to modify the licensing such that open source shows can produce proprietary packaging for media sales).

Anyway, the idea is simple: by building a community around the development of your core intellectual property, you give up some control while gaining massive productivity multipliers. This is how Google and Apple are able to innovate so fast. It's why Oracle was able to step into the business of distributing their own operating system, literally overnight. This isn't an idea, it's a proven business model, and frankly, I believe it's one that every industry is going to have to adopt or find a way to compete with.