Can Medium Change the Digital Publishing Paradigm?

Article ImageFirst there was Blogger. Then there was Twitter. Now, somewhere in between those concepts is Medium, the ambitious new creation of co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, who are responsible for all three social media online publishing tools.

Launched recently by Williams' and Stone's Obvious Corp., Medium offers a fresh take on blogging by combining some of the best features already built into competitor sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, reddit, and Zeen. Medium's design lets users collaborate on works consisting of words and/or images that are published on the site. After reading a work, users can provide feedback to the author, indicate if they liked it, and supplement it with additional content.

Posted works are algorithmically arranged according to quality instead of date and organized into collections of content tied to a particular template and theme. The collections enable users to explore content by topic. Collections currently posted on the site include a grouping of "crazy stories" and nostalgic childhood photos.

Currently, anyone with a Twitter account can read and give feedback on Medium; however, posting is restricted to "a small invited list of friends and family, which we'll be expanding rapidly ... to those who have registered," according to Medium's website.

While representatives from Medium declined an opportunity to participate in this article, statements from Williams on Medium's site say they're "rethinking publishing and building a new platform from scratch" and "re-imagining publishing in an attempt to make an evolutionary leap. ..."
Michael Kazarnowicz, head of social engagement at Mag+ in New York City, believes that Williams' claim may be more than just a lot of hot air. "[Medium's] ease of use and simplicity of the reading experience appears promising. If publishing is as easy, Medium might become huge. What strikes me as brilliant is that you basically could get started with publishing without having to set up a whole blog, something that can be intimidating for many people," says Kazarnowicz. "Combined with the wisdom of the crowds, it could well become a platform for new quality content-as opposed to the reposts you see on sites such as Reddit."

Cameron Yuill, founder of AdGent Digital in Palo Alto, Calif., is equally impressed by Medium's potential to alter the electronic content landscape. "Medium could very well change digital publishing," said Yuill. "The display of content is beautiful and easy to consume. It's certainly built for mobile and tablet content consumption, and that's a big like. But it's the creation of content that Medium needs to be successful at-getting people to create on their platform so that there is enough content on the platform to be consumed."

A market crowded by similar sites and resources is what concerns Penny Sansevieri, CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc. in San Diego. "There's a lot of competition for this type of thing. Look at Pinterest. One only has to click on ‘Popular' to see what's trending," says Sansevieri. "[Medium] is not all that different from the way Pinterest is organized, by theme, idea, and collections. But putting up a site that's built on content graded, liked, or shared by your peers could be good."

She adds, "I don't really know if [Medium] can change the realm of digital publishing, although no one saw Twitter coming either."

However, Medium's promise of allowing different users to collaborate on works "could be a recipe for disaster," Sansevieri says. "But I think the mashup idea has been around for a while. If it's managed right, it could work well. But that begs the question, if you have something that's fantastic, which users have contributed to and made better, who owns it and what if someone wants to buy the idea? Who gets the money?"

Dan Schnapp, partner and chair of new media, entertainment and technology practice at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, LLP in New York City, is also troubled by potential ownership and liability pitfalls that could beset Medium users. After scrutinizing Medium's terms of service, Schnapp cautioned that there could be significant issues concerning joint ownership of copyrights and underlying works that get published. The terms state that subscriber contributors retain ownership of all intellectual property rights in their subscriber content.

"The problem is that this agreement is between an individual subscriber and Medium and not by and among the subscribers themselves," says Schnapp. "So if it's truly a collaborative platform where subscribers and users can join together and create posts and articles, there's really no terms surrounding whether the actual work produced is a collaborative effort and should be treated as a joint work under the copyright act."

Case in point: If Contributor A provides 80% of the content to one collected work, and Contributor B authors the other 20%, they have a 100% undivided interest in the entire copyright for that particular work. In this scenario, each co-author has the same rights as the other to exploit that work, which means one can license it without the other party's consent, although royalties earned would have to be shared with the other co-author-creating a sticky legal mess.
"There are also issues of prosecution. If someone is infringing on their work, who has the right to bring the lawsuit? And which author is liable for slander, libel, and copyright infringement?" Schnapp asks.

While Schnapp thinks Medium can survive and thrive as a model that paves the way forward for the future of blogging, "I think it's a risky proposition. The question becomes, is there a legal construct within which to operate that will be acceptable and palatable for true publishers to collaborate with one another on a third-party platform like Medium, or will it present too many legal risks to prevent it from becoming a successful one?"

In his website comments, Williams cautioned that Medium is still an early work in progress, adding that "Medium is only a sliver of what it could be. We haven't tied everything in Medium together yet, partly because we expect our ideas to evolve rapidly as we experiment and learn from usage."

Yet, despite the risks and kinks that need to be worked out, Yuill can foresee wider adoption of Medium-provided that it allows for easy content creation, keeps a simple and intuitive user interface, and offers compelling content that attracts users.

"I would not bet against Medium, given the pedigree of its founders," Yuill said. "This is a space they know well, so I would expect if anyone can introduce yet another digital publishing platform and make it successful, it is the team at Obvious."