Research Blog Series: Monetising Free Content

Liz Dowthwaite presents her research exploring how creators of free online content are able to monetise their work, for our Research Blog Series


Internet culture as portrayed by
the webcomic ‘Nedroid’ by A Clark

Project: Monetising Free Content

Investigator: Liz Dowthwaite, University of Nottingham

What did your research aim to do?
The aim was to explore how creators of free content, specifically webcomics, are able to use social media and other internet tools to monetise their work online, at the same time as maintaining their ownership rights and combatting attribution and copyright problems. Online copyright law is a major issue for many in the creative industries. Independent artists often rely on sharing their work across social media and content-sharing sites, leaving them open to having their work stolen or misused. When this work is also provided for free, making a living becomes even harder.

How did you do it?
I carried out a series of 6 separate studies over the four years of my PhD: 3 questionnaires aimed at both readers and creators of webcomics, a series of interviews with webcomics creators, and analysis of projects on two different crowdfunding platforms. The first year was focussed on identifying issues of working online and so are most relevant to the work of CREATe. The remainder of the work looked at mechanisms of crowdfunding in the webcomics industry.

What are your key findings?
Creators use a huge range of social media and websites, treating interactions with their readers as part of their job. They live portfolio lives, having to monitor and maintain their work across many platforms and many different methods of monetisation. Whilst artists are generally aware of the cover provided by copyright, they feel that it is not necessarily relevant or effective within the creative space they work in. There is very little support and there are few resources available to help them to fight for control of their work, and whilst artists do get angry about actual theft and removal of attribution, they accept that they have to put up with certain violations if they wish to continue to publish comics for free on the Internet.

In terms of crowdfunding, motivations to support creators come from the desire to allow them to continue to provide free content, from supporting others in their community of fandom, and on Kickstarter, receiving additional rewards. There is a sense of reciprocity between creator and reader in terms of both social (sharing work, flagging issues) and material exchange (buying merchandise, providing content).

What impact has your work had so far/what impact do you anticipate it will have?
The thesis was submitted in September 2017, and the work has also been published in various journals, blogs, and conferences. I also hope to create a resource that presents results to creators so they can make real use of them, both in protecting themselves and their work online, and allowing them to make a living doing what they love.

Are there additional/new research questions still to be answered in this area?
There are many future questions I wish to investigate with regards to crowdfunding in the creative industries and other communities.

How has your association with CREATe helped to take things forward?
CREATe has given me many opportunities to meet and share my work with other researchers from many different disciplines and at different stages in their career. I have presented at several CREATe-organised events including capacity building events and the CREATe Festival in 2016. I was also able to complete an internship at a different institution that I made links with through CREATe.

For more information see this article, the CREATe blog post and the Youtube live stream site for the Electricomics Academic conference held at the University of Hertfordshire.

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