[This article first appeared on the Guardian Media Network – May 2013]

YouTube has introduced a subscription model as an option for some channel owners. There are only a few partners in the programme at the moment so, while not exactly a pilot, it’s early days. YouTube are promising more subscription channels to come, but in the UK niche interests are likely to have the most fun.

It’s probably worth being a little pedantic about the model. YouTube isn’t charging for access to channels – it’s giving a limited number of channels the option to charge a subscription fee. The channel keeps 55% of the fee and YouTube takes 45%. This is similar to the existing partner/YouTube split for advertising revenue. Much like the Apple app store, if you plan to charge people for the content you publish via the platform, the platform owner takes a healthy cut.

This move into paid-for content places YouTube at the uncomfortable intersection of two digital trends: commercialisation and openness. In some instances, these trends are in direct opposition while in others the relationship is more complementary.

It’s quite common for premium digital content or features to be available for a price while the basics are free. Think Spotify, Evernote, LinkedIn, Dropbox and countless other freemium products and services. It’s quite natural to think of the paid version as an upgrade or a way of getting rid of the annoying adverts. Other popular services require payment for any access at all via a paywall: Netflix, LoveFilm, The Times and others. The YouTube subscription model falls somewhere between these commercial approaches. There’s not even a guarantee that paying for a subscription kills the ads. According to YouTube, that’s a choice for the channel owner.

Subscription video seems to be in direct opposition to the digital trend for openness, where access to content is more democratic and universal. This unfettered access has helped YouTube achieve the volume of users it has today. While it’s entirely reasonable for an organisation to want to capitalise on its success, people have become accustomed to free content. Openness is a powerful digital trend that is being adopted by governments and academic bodies around the world. One good example of government openness is data.gov.uk, which has the strap line “opening up gvernment”. From an academic perspective, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, is a strong proponent of open data and believes open access is the future for academic publishing. It remains to be seen whether YouTube can successfully navigate both of these trends.

Of course, there are pros and cons for content providers adopting a subscription model. In terms of pros, content quality is likely to improve as creators invest profits. Creators rewarded for their work will be able to create more of it. People with crazy niche interests (and let’s face it, there are a lot of us online) will be able to enjoy content made just for us. Ultimately, subscribers will be able to create custom content packages that cable and satellite providers can’t hope to emulate.

Among the cons, people used to free content may not adopt paid subscriptions, leading to less reach. Paywalls are a barrier to signup, particularly for teenagers who are a significant YouTube segment. As subscription video can’t be shared widely across the network, the chances of a viral network effect are minimal – it’s not quite a walled garden, more a walled pot plant.

Software engineers, content creators, publishers and distributors should be paid for what they do. It’s highly likely that we’ll see more products and services adopt a paid-for rather than ad-funded approach in the near term. Thankfully, though, free services aren’t going away. It’s that easy access that has shaped a generation and a global network. I think we’re the richer for it.

Photo credit: Daniel Y. Go