An Open Platform – but read the small print

10 March, 2009

The Guardian’s launch of its Open Platform API is a fascinating example of how pervasive networking is encouraging radical experiments in new business models. The Guardian is loosening (some) control over its content in order to extend its reach as a global brand. In the wider picture, this is an attempt to break free from a business model that is seen by many as in terminal decline (printed newspapers) and find a new identity on the web.

Open Platform has two main elements: the Content API, which allows content from the Guardian to be integrated into other websites and online services, and the Data Store, which is a collection of data sets “curated” by Guardian journalists.

The Guardian’s terms and conditions for use of its Content API and Data Store are slightly at odds with the publicity about freedom and openness. Use of Guardian content is subject to detailed requirements to which website owners will need to give careful consideration before including content on their site. Terms of particular interest include:

  • The current free access only applies during the beta trial period. After that (or during the beta trial, if the need arises), the Guardian may introduce “alternative partnership models” – in other words, paid-for access for particular uses.
  • Websites using Guardian content must comply with the Guardian’s requirements. In particular, the site must not contain any illegal or discriminatory content, promote violence or illegal activity, or “be capable, in our sole discretion, of interpretation as racist, sexist or homophobic or promoting such views”.
  • Only 5,000 API requests can be made per day. So high-traffic website may find they need to increase their allowance of requests: which in turn may be an area of potential revenue for the Guardian (though this is not stated explicitly at present).
  • Content must be replaced or deleted every 24 hours. It cannot be retained in a static form for more than 24 hours.
  • The content must not be edited, translated or otherwise adapted.
  • A provision of critical importance: those using Guardian content under this scheme must carry Guardian advertising on their sites.
  • The Guardian can terminate access at any time without giving a reason.
  • The Guardian can use your name, logo and website address for promotional purposes.

So this is a long way from a Creative Commons-style free-for-all. In some respects it represents a “toe in the water”: allowing relatively small-scale access to unamended content. Clearly the Guardian’s concern will be to ensure that this move helps it generate advertising revenue, both directly from advertisements placed on participants’ websites, and by extending its reach and thus enabling it to raise its online advertising rates over time.

It will be interesting to see whether other newspapers follow suit, and if so whether they will take a more or less “conservative” approach than the Guardian in terms of retaining control over their content. At the very least, this provides a welcome contrast to the prevailing funereal tone of media coverage on the future of the newspaper industry.