Who ‘owns’ content design features?

With content design ever changing, how can CMS decide who "owns" what features?

With content design ever changing, how can CMS decide who "owns" what features?

Content is ever-changing. This is both its greatest virtue and the most significant challenge for designers. In the pursuit of even more intelligent and efficient user interfaces, CMS vendors are tasked with constantly redesigning their software to accommodate innovations in content format and design.

In the pursuit of a CMS that will successfully manage new forms of optimized content, there is one major obstacle that stands in the way of innovation: the provenance of content throughout its lifecycle.  With the rise of cross-platform giants like Amazon and Google, content is now being repurposed, reinterpreted or filtered through any number of proprietary formats, any one of which allows a company to stake an ownership claim. But where is the the line between content that can exist safely and comfortably within an multi-platform ecosystem and content that can be designated "property"?

The changing definition of content
The challenge of defining what counts as "proprietary" content lies in defining content in our modern data economy. If you are a user investigating a certain product on an ecommerce platform like Amazon, you will encounter a product description possibly submitted by the manufacturer or drafted by an author at Amazon itself. It is nearly impossible to trace authorship and ownership of the content since it will have been repurposed many times across a variety of platforms whenever you search for the product. This content may also be repurposed to appear in different formats: Written word turns into spoken audio which can in turn be captured on film. If all this different content is connected to the product and is the same copy, can it truly be considered different – or the same – content?

"Experts suggest that the definition of content should be expanded."

This has led to experts within the content and CMS design community to suggest we move away from the traditional definition of content as "copy produced by a single author," embracing instead a broader definition outside of where it occurs and its format.

"We need to shift our definition of content to be what the user needs right now," says Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering. "It has nothing to do with how it's produced or where it lives on the server. If the user needs it, it's content."

Can you 'own' a need?
In this regard, Spool identifies content as the solution to an operational problem. Creating it comes down to identifying a need and producing something that satiates the need. This, however, becomes complicated once you introduce the idea of commercial platforms producing and managing content to meet the demands of their customers.

"If we want content seen as a business solution to a problem, we need to change expectations around what it is and what it is supposed to do," wrote AHA Media Group's Ahava Leibtag. Leibtag points to the obligations that organizations have, not only to produce and disseminate content, but to protect branding and control what it considers "proprietary."

Companies cannot patent an identified consumer "need", and the infrastructure relating to the pursuit of original content authorship privileges above all else simply doesn't exist in a robust form. Yet what organizations can do is develop proprietary design features. These features essentially act as a lens for content to be viewed: The basic content would exist outside the reach of patent, but the design features that can be woven into the overall platform interface could be copyrighted. Much like the way Microsoft and Apple of a generation ago sought to protect the look-n-feel of their respective products, modern companies can use formatting and user behavior as a mechanism for protect their proprietary interests over data that they did not create.

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