Paying Artists and Writers Online – by Mass Sponsorship of Free Copies – Introduction

The Need: An unknown band may want to sell a song independently for a small price, say 20 cents per download. Or children who create a video instead of a lemonade stand may want to charge 10 cents per view. Or an investigative reporter prepares an article that many care about — but must charge 25 cents per copy to continue in-depth reporting. Or a public service Web site could keep going at 5 cents a visit. Or a well-known artist who donates a digital work to a nonprofit for fundraising may want many people to hear or see it (instead of auctioning the work to just one buyer), and also want almost 100% of all money paid to go to the cause. These people and many others may not find a workable solution today.

Flexible Mass Sponsorship Not Micropayment: Micropayment (small online payments sometimes defined as under $1 each, or under 25 cents) has often failed, partly due to mental transaction costs; another issue is that many buyers and sellers, typically thousands, need to set up a new kind of account and maintain it up front, before the system becomes useful. And a hidden problem, present in every micropayment system we have seen but absent in analysis and discussion, is the cultural bias that everyone must pay (perhaps a side effect from the war against copying and free riders).

Mass sponsorship means that anyone, anywhere in the world, who can pay online can sponsor any particular artwork distributed this way, any time, for any reason, and in any amount (any number of copies). The sponsor can support the artists and see his, her, or its own sponsorship act instantly throughout the world and reach a uniquely targeted audience (both content- and network-targeted) with the sponsor’s personal message (it could be an ad — or be about almost anything) and create gifts for friends or colleagues that they can share with others and call attention to the sponsors’ emails because they contain premium content (unlike almost all other emails), yet have no need for security hassles. All this can happen from a single act, a standard e-commerce purchase of a sponsorship. We have planned for only about 2% of users to be sponsors with money on the table — meaning that about 98% of all users can download premium content free and registration-free, with just a click, no sign-up or other preliminary hassles at all. For the 98%, it will be like downloading free content today — only this time the artists will get paid. Sharing premium content will be strongly encouraged, not criminalized, since it benefits all parties — helping to promote artists naturally through informal social networks, while reducing class and access barriers.

All this can happen on a single server — compatible with all major browsers, operating systems, and smart phones, with no client software to write, run, or debug. Even the first user can be successful — there is no need for any network effect, any critical mass of users. The design is non-proprietary and ready to go, but not yet implemented. The next major step is to create a simple but useful proof-of-principle system that anyone can test and play with.

Sponsorship: Sponsors can include a short personal message (about almost anything) to anyone downloading a copy that sponsor paid for; also see other incentives for sponsors. Then anyone in world who can get to the site online can just click for free access (no registration, login, or any other hassle required), provided a sponsored copy still exists. And anyone who can pay online (with a bankcard, PayPal, etc.) can sponsor as many copies as he or she desires, any time and for any reason(s). Importantly, with social network distribution there is no practical upper limit to the size of a sponsorship.

Imagine how difficult it would be for the band noted above to raise $200 (even with micropayment), by somehow getting a thousand people to each pay 20 cents online — given the hassle and inefficiency of paying so small an amount (or the need for everyone involved to set up a micropayment account in advance). How much easier to raise the same $200 from one or a few sponsors (who can then send their own message(s) to 1,000 people), and let a thousand people download free. Each sponsor will receive the prepaid copies in a smart URL, which keeps track of how many remain, the sponsor’s message, and other information, and will require payment if all sponsorship runs out.

But sponsorship need not run out, since any of the 1,000 people (or organizations) can also purchase additional sponsorship — and each can include his, her, or its own personal message to distribute. With additional sponsorship, the prepaid copies will not run out at 1,000; instead, a smart URL delivering popular content might circulate indefinitely, doing business independently and paying the artists as it travels through social networks around the world. And these smart URLs can be emailed without encryption and shared freely, encouraging sharing of favorite music, etc. instead of criminalizing it — helping artists find their audiences and become better known.

Both piracy and DRM will be minimized if enough sponsorship can be found, since free pirate copies must compete against equally free legitimate copies that do pay the artists. And if enough sponsorship cannot be found for all the free users, then artists or other content providers can compensate by lowering their prices — not only getting more business by making each sponsorship more attractive (since the sponsor’s message will reach more people for the same cost), but also making the money in each sponsorship go farther. At 10 cents instead of 20 cents in this example, $200 in sponsorships can accommodate 2,000 people.

No Network Effect: There is no need to somehow convince thousands of sellers and buyers to open a special account that is not yet useful to them (before buyers have enough sellers involved to make the system worthwhile for them, and vice versa). Instead, only the artists (or other merchants) need to set up a new account, and they are motivated. Sponsors can use whatever credit or debit cards or other payment means they already have, as with any other e-commerce. And everyone else in the world who can get online is already set to go. No preparation or training needed, since all these potential end users already know how to click. So the first artists to try it could use this system successfully, even if no one else in the world had heard of it. There is no “network effect” in this case, meaning no need for any critical mass of users before the system can work effectively.

Each song, video, or other art in the public space needs its own informal social network. This software design (RepliCounts) provides simple activities to develop and expand such networks. It offers opportunities and incentives for sponsors to fund artists gracefully, while anyone interested can use sponsored copies at no cost in either money or inconvenience, and can share this free access with anyone else. And sponsors can get their messages to uniquely targeted audiences of persons who (1) probably like the particular song or other content delivered by this sponsorship (since a friend or other associate sent them the smart URL), and (2) also are part of the sponsor’s own social networks, and/or part of separate, semi-public social networks defined by whoever currently has copies of that particular smart URL, even if nobody knows how large these networks are, let alone who is in them. Not even the server knows that.

Definition: By ‘mass sponsorship’ we mean letting anyone in the world who can pay online sponsor as much or as little as they want of any particular song, video, image, writing, or other content distributed this way, and then share their sponsorship through social networks of their choice. They can share with their own networks starting with friends and associates, with external networks that may may include thought leaders or other attractive audiences, or with the entire interested public.

A key benefit: getting payment from a minority who can pay more, and may want to do so for any of many different reasons, instead of trying to extract a little money from every end user, even those cannot or do not want to pay. The many free users will benefit the artists, not only by generating buzz but also by distributing the smart URL to others, some of whom can pay. Note that new musical and other styles often start among the rich, but can also start among the poor. Sponsored free access can support the artists or other content owners, while minimizing social class barriers to theie development of constituencies.

Also – A New Financial Tool: In the entire history of money no financial account ever could replicate (reproduce) without limit when its owner wants, creating new “child” accounts, grandchildren, and family trees that automatically inherit dozens or hundreds of services, settings, automatic actions, and other capabilities. Modern e-commerce allows this design for the first time ever, but to our knowledge, the new business opportunities it makes available have so far been overlooked. Replicating accounts can handle far more services and options than ordinary financial accounts, and will offer new choices for the inevitable tradeoffs between convenience and security. New business models will be feasible, when they would have been difficult before. The mass sponsorship mentioned above is only one of many potential uses.

Free and Open Source Design: We have no proprietary claims for this design. Anyone can use it non-exclusively, commercially or otherwise; we ask only for attribution. “RepliCounts” is our name for our own design; we reserve this name for our work, simply to avoid confusion. But anyone can use the RepliCounts design. And other kinds of replicating accounts are possible.

Status: This RepliCounts design is ready to go, but no software has been written. The next step is to develop an open-source proof of principle — a useful (though limited) implementation. Development will be simplified because: (1) no client software is needed — the entire RepliCounts system can run on a server, and be compatible with all major browsers and operating systems; (2) account replication consists mainly of just making a copy; and (3) the various account services are modular, and new one can be added even while the accounts are live in public use.

Contact: Anyone interested in this project can contribute in many ways, not only in software. Contact jjames [at] replicounts [dot] org.

Page updated 2009-01-15