LIFE Lessons (and Other Licensing Truths)

by Tim Gillett

Interview with Tom Rowland: Playing the long game on IP licensing

Longevity and income – these are the two key reasons why publishers should consider licensing their intellectual property, according to Tom Rowland: “It’s the way to get content and brands in front of audiences that are not seeing it directly from the producer – or not seeing enough of it. 

“If it’s their first time, it’s an opportunity to acquire new fans – and, if it’s not their first time, it’s an opportunity to further ingratiate the brand positively in the mind of that consumer.”

Tom has more than 20 years’ experience in the licensing space, in a huge range of product types including sports, music, technology, photography, live theater, merchandise, food and beverage – as well as more traditional publishing content such as magazines, websites, and social media.

“It’s something I just gravitated towards,” recalls Tom. “I got my first taste at the firm I joined out of law school – Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson – where I spent two years litigating intellectual property cases. 

“From there, I went to a music licensing and technology start-up, where we added video and audio books, then on to the publishing industry. I could easily relate to the business objectives and I enjoyed the industries; I enjoy the underlying subject matter. For instance, I understood the appeal of the original Napster – who doesn’t enjoy music? – but the harm to the industry was plain. 

“The enjoyment to consumers in other mediums – photography, magazines, world-famous brands – is equally apparent, so working on deals to spread that content to others around the world is a really enjoyable job.”

LIFE Changing Experience

Tom started his own consulting company, TR Consulting Services, a year ago and a lot of what he does now relates to licensing brands, content and technology. For many years he led the International Group at Dotdash Meredith Corporation, Meredith Corporation, and Time Inc – and also helped lead the iconic LIFE Magazine photography archive.

LIFE had huge successes in licensing its content, which Tom puts down to the massive respect it built as a brand over many years. “You can’t really do that overnight,” he says. “It did that by investing in its product, keeping the quality of that product high, owning most of its product, and doing that consistently over time. So now, many years since it produced any content, it has an enviable licensing program granting access to its millions of photographs and stories – in everything from movies to exhibitions to fast fashion, phone accessories and disposable cameras, all over the world.”

Also of key importance was LIFE’s investment in talent, says Tom: “I’ve always known the brand to be surrounded by very talented people. They know almost everything there is to know about the brand – not an easy thing with a brand and content that is approaching its 100th birthday – but they have never been ‘precious’, and take advantage of playful, modern, sometimes even pithy opportunities. It’s a difficult line to walk and the LIFE team has always been exceptional at it.”

Developing markets

During Tom’s 15 years at Time Inc – and its respective takeovers by Meredith and then Dotdash – the publishing business expanded to meet consumers wherever they were situated. It was imperative that the licensing business expanded at the same time, says Tom: “When the company launched television, for instance, we licensed it overseas. We did traditional publisher content (magazines, websites, social media), but our partners would grow the brand by then launching events, awards and restaurants. We also pushed into the brand licensing world, in everything from higher education to soft goods to fashion.  

“One of the most interesting deals was when we launched InStyle and Food & Wine in China; we had to understand and navigate Chinese social media, Weibo and WeChat. The Chinese don’t really spend so much time on websites, so content creation and promotion on these two platforms was vital. And the question in licensing is always: how do we let our partners do what they need to do – create new content and be savvy social media players – while not losing control of our brand? We learned a lot when joining those platforms for the first time.”

Changing times

Technology and the advent of the internet has changed the licensing world immensely over the last 25 years or so, says Tom – along with most aspects of all our lives. 

“Whole papers have been written on how to protect copyrighted information on the Internet, and more recently in relation to artificial intelligence (AI). To what extent is copyrighted content allowed to be used without a license? By search engines in search results? In ChatGPT? And to what extent do content owners want that use – without a license – because it might come back to benefit them?  

“The music industry fought that fight and won early on, but did the technology change them for the better? Of course, they couldn’t let music be available for free, but technology led to the death of the album, for most intents and purposes.”

The more recent proliferation of data, and its availability, has led to the easier measurement of the different aspects of what might be considered a successful license. Tom explains: “For instance, on websites you can see who is coming, where they are coming from, and you can measure the number of consumers and the length of time spent on a topic or site. I’ve used that data to show third parties what they should license in their territory. For instance, if Health.com gets a lot of traffic from consumers in India, and they spend a lot of quality time on the site, you can show this to publishers in India – and perhaps they might build a business licensing Health.com articles, or perhaps it turns into a local, Indian version of Health.com.” 

Rage against Machine Learning?

Of course, AI and machine learning are the latest iterations of developing technology that are concerning all areas of licensing and the more general publishing world. “I’m sure the music and publishing litigations against AI are well known, and I’m not in a particular position to add to any expert analysis of those,” says Tom.

“But like anything else, something so powerful – if used astutely – can probably benefit content creators. From a licensor of content perspective, what hits me first is the value of the brand behind the content being licensed. Valuable sources of content are valuable because, among other traits, they are trusted. Having a trusted brand associated with content becomes even more critical in licensing with the proliferation of AI.”

And, however technology develops in the coming years, Tom says it’s imperative that publishers play the ‘long game’ when it comes to licensing intellectual property: “Continue to invest in the brand, continue to spread its reach, and that will lead to further licensing opportunities – which, in the final analysis, will lead to a healthy brand and profit and loss sheet.”