wikiHow is one of the more interesting cases of opening a proprietary content and community site. A couple of entrepreneurs bought eHow (editorially produced How To Guides, a dot com showcase) out of hock and appended a wiki to it. Today it may be the second fastest growing public wiki and they recently adopted Creative Commons licensing. The real story is the process of opening an asset, transitioning a community and how to be a net-enabled entrepreneur.

During the boom, eHow spent $30 million, developed a rich base of How To content, respectable traffic an loyal contributors-as-users. Many of these contributors were experts in their fields and valued how they could contribute content while retaining copyright. Under a questionable business model, eHow filed for bankruptcy in February 2001, but traffic continued at 250k visitors per month. Another now defunct internet company called purchased eHow, but also was unable to run the site profitably and began to look for buyers.

Two entrepreneurs who happened to love the site, bought the asset and worked part time to keep the site operational. Literally, it is a nights and weekend labor of love.

They leveraged Internet Archive to find an republish lost content during the bankruptcy and published 1,000 articles previously composed by the dot com’s professional editors. But noting the parallel between the Nupedia/Wikipedia story, they looked to evolve the user-generated content model. One of them happened to be a Socialtext customer (was the first deal I closed via Skype, incidentally) for their day job, so I’ve been helping them out informally.

They adapted the open source MediaWiki to fit the eHow format by breaking the wiki page into title, summary, steps, tips and warnings. With zero publicity, they simply stuck a wikiHow tab on the top of the site. wikiHow is six months old and has already generated 1400 articles (by comparison, Wikitravel, a great resource, generated 1000 articles in seven months) and traffic is doubling every three months.

The very first piece of advice I gave was to focus on the social contract and adopt Creative Commons licensing. They executed the social contract (in human readable summary: a civil group effort, family content and limit egregious self-advertising) quite well, but licensing proved to be an issue.

A big part of the co-founding intent was to share and develop the asset with the community. Unfortunately, we don’t have an analytical framework for opening intellectual property (like we do with transaction cost analysis for buy vs. build). The co-founder decisions were further complicated by the existing community structure. Many eHow contributors were considered experts in their fields. They valued the ability to retain copyright on their work as a promotion of their expertise. On the other hand, while the site purposely shied away from publicity, it began to attract another generation of contributors more familiar with Creative Commons licensing.

It also attracted some detractors, such as Ernie Miller:

Yeah, except that, unlike Wikipedia, their Wiki isn’t under the GNU Free Documentation License. In other words, they’re basically asking people to slave away for them for free. Thanks, but no thanks.
The Open License Proposal provides some good detail on the narrative of adopting Copyleft. Most of the conversation on open licensing occurred within the wikHow discussion board. One key issue was the risk of screen scrapers and spammers bastardizing content for search engine optimization. I put them in touch with Creative Commons and Mia Garlick (General Counsel) provided compelling arguments and guided them through the process. At a certain point, they were able to gain support from the existing eHow community. Now at the bottom of every wikiHow page you will find the (CC) logo and This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

No better way to conclude this story, for now, with co-founder Jack H’s own words in an email:

I’m very happy to report that wikiHow has rolled out a Creative Commons license over the entire site. Our small but growing community had a long discussion about which license to choose and why. As you may remember, Josh and I had originally proposed giving authors the ability to opt-in or opt-out of an open license. And the community liked the idea of the open license, but the majority of the participants wanted the open license to be mandatory rather than optional. So Josh and I wisely decided to follow their lead. And after hearing their views, it is now obvious that they (and you) were right. It just didn’t make sense for wikiHow to be half free. The most active community members work on the entire site, not just their own articles and therefore they should have the satisfaction of knowing that everything they do can be used by anyone under the terms of the license. I’m very excited to have made the switch to this license. I know that I will be really proud the first time I hear about a blogger or school using our content on their website or other publication. Offering free, helpful instructions to the problems of everyday life is wikiHow’s core mission and the open license will help us get these instructions in the hands of even more people. I’m really stoked.

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