Sunday, December 16, 2007

Google Knol is not about sole authorship

I've been reading almost everything I can get my hands on about Google Knol. The arguments invariably turn to the question, "Is Knol a Wikipedia killer". The conversation goes something like this: Google’s philosophy: Knol thyself

Google’s plan is based on a model that highlights individual expertise rather than collective knowledge. Unlike Wikipedia, where the contributors and editors remain in the background, each knol represents the view of a single author, who is featured prominently on the page.

Then there is this quote from Jimmy Wales on Jon Battelle's blog:

Sounds more like Yahoo Answers than Wikipedia to me. It is not a collaborative tool, it is a competitive tool.

Where are people getting this? Sure the example Google shows has a single author, but there is nothing in the Google press release to indicate anything about "Google's model" and sole authorship. The press release does a pretty nice job of talking about authors, plural, and says little about how knols are created.

If you want a taste for how authorship might work in Knol you only have to look as far as Google Docs. It's very easy to assemble a group to collaborate on an article, and publish to the Web today. Google Docs' strength is its collaborative nature. Additionally, let's not forget that Google has one of the hottest wiki technologies to be found, Jotspot. I think it is safe to assume that when Google finally releases Jotspot that it will be tightly integrated with Knol. When that happens, you effectively have a writing and publishing tool that allows authors to choose how they prefer to work. People will bring their own social networks.

Basically, Knol is a content management system for the masses, with the added advantage of having the SEO baked-in. Google is effectively lowering the barriers to access in a significant way. The question those of you who are in the aggregation or publishing business need to be asking: Why would authors choose to publish through you as opposed to just doing it themselves with Knol? If you can't answer this question you are in deep trouble.


Peg Boyles said...

Basically, Knol is a content management system for the masses, with the added advantage of having the SEO baked-in. Google is effectively lowering the barriers to access in a significant way.

Yikes! Something else the Google press release doesn't mention: the limitless potential for new forms of advertising (including various forms of content branding) once Google gets us all out there collaborating our brains out. Just imagine.

Peg Boyles said...

Yeah, I know Google says authors can accept or reject ads on their Knol pages, but this concept gets pretty well shredded in the full embrace of open access to collaborative environments.

Anonymous said...

here's an example: you're building a community site around innovation with many contributors. It pays to have one center for that with many contributors. Unclear that knol or wikipedia do the trick there.

Anonymous said...


I can see all sorts of models coming from this. With Google's ad strength, and their payment system that is already in place your imagination on how this might eventually play out is rather mind boggling.

It sure looks to me like Google is prepared to let authors (the owners of the intellectual property) decide how things are shared (or not). This appears to be a model that will play in a closed or open environment. The "rules" would be applied to each individual piece of content.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


In this model there is no concept of a site-- there is only each individual, standalone piece of content with links to relevant content.

This is pretty much the way that Wikipedia currently works. Only a small number of visitors to Wikipedia actually interact with the tools in creating or managing content. The bulk of visitors arrive to each individual piece of content directly from search and leave. This is how the content wads of the future will work.

The question is how many content wads will we have?

Anonymous said...

Kevin, I'm just not as convinced of this model of consolidation, particularly for things that occur at a local level. However, I can see using knols strategically, much like some attempt to use wikipedia.

Knol will coexist with web sites.

Anonymous said...


There will always be niches. I'm definitely speaking in generalities and about the "big" content sites.

The problem for the local/smaller sites will be discoverability. It's hard for a small site, unless it is incredibly specialized, to garner much google juice. From that perpective even small sites would benefit from thinking of each piece of content as if it stood alone.

Peg Boyles said...


As someone who often works in collaboratively produced documents (sometimes as writer, sometimes as editor, sometimes playing dual roles), I've thought a lot about how to configure the concept of intellectual property in such environments.

Who's the "author?" Who "owns" a work that one person may have developed in draft form, but that two or two hundred people may have worked on/over for weeks, months, or years? How do you even describe the intellectual product that will result from such a dynamic, ongoing collaboration?

Most commentaries I've read on knol seem to accept without question that the same copyright laws that have been evolving since 1709 to protect the intellectual property of individual writers and publishers of physical products such as books and journals [published in time-fixed forms, expensive to print and distribute] will prevail in hyperlinked-media creations.

Among the many questions that arise for me:

If the original "author" (however we define "author") of a collaborative work retains the right to place ads of her choosing and collect revenue from knols pages, what becomes of the moral rights of significant contributors to the work, especially those folks contributing perspectives and evidence that challenge those of the author-owner?

Or will we relegate all but the original point of view/evidence to the sidelines as part of peer critiques and comments?

Speaking of which, if we pretend to bypass conventional gatekeepers, just who will constitute a "peer" in collaborative online scholarship?

Anonymous said...


All good questions. Not being an attorney I don't want to get into too many specifics. This stuff gets complicated fast.

There's plenty out there on joint ownership and the "rules" for revenue sharing. A lot of this depends on the original copyright the author assigned to the work. Then you get into the whole issue of "work for hire", etc.

The moral clause doesn't apply to copyright in the U.S.

I would assume that comments, etc are metadata, and not part of the original work. They would fall under their own under their own copyright.

I'm thinking that most situations that would arise on Knol would be covered under an appropriate Creative Commons type license.

You're right though, I['m guessing there will be some significant court cases in the future to try to interpret some of what is happening in more modern ways.


Peg Boyles said...

I wasn't thinking about resolving disputes so much as the reality that the existing copyright laws probably won't hold up well for collaborative networked products.

And you're right, moral rights aren't honored under U.S. law the way they are in Europe and other nations, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be deeply concerned with them (or that new laws won't emerge to more fully embrace moral rights), especially those of us interested in non-commercial learning environments. I think all contracts between educational publishers and writers should include clauses that address moral rights.

Moral rights can't be bought or sold like copyrights. They involve integrity and personal/institutional reputation, and they extend to the associations around how a work is displayed.

So, for example, significant contributors to an ongoing collaborative project should have the right to withdraw their contributions to the project when the associations (which might include ads or other commercial intrusions) no longer reflect their values.

Could get sticky!

Anonymous said...

Kevin, you can actually get good local visibility without too much effort because no one is really competing for those areas. However, I buy your idea of using a knol for a hub. My guess is that knols are more informational than functional. I heard an astonishing statistic that somewhere on the order of 25% of Google's number 1 results came from wikipedia.

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