Sunday, January 2, 2011

Internet Dilemma: Free Art or Not

Many artists, journalists, and others need to earn a living independently from their online creative work. But charging end users even the smallest amount kills traffic and business due to the payment hassles alone (except for a few superstars, huge corporations like Apple, and highly specialized sites like medical journals). Advertising (including traditional nonprofit "sponsorship") invites a 3rd party to pay, making content free to the end user in return for commercial outreach or recognition; such advertising can fund artists' creative work, but has drawbacks.

Here is a new "mass sponsorship" design to support online art, journalism, and other digital creation gracefully. It's a different kind of 3rd-party support. Sorry, no software yet -- that's the next step in this project. You're getting an early look.

All my work here is rights-free, non-secret, and available for anyone to use without further permission, for either nonprofit or commercial/proprietary projects. I don't need funding, and do insist on keeping these ideas and designs available for public benefit.

What Is Mass Sponsorship?

By "mass sponsorship" we mean that anybody who can pay online, anywhere in the world, at any time, for any reason (or none), can sponsor any number of copies of a particular song, article, video, poem, or other creative online work distributed in this way, paying online with a bankcard, etc. These copies (either downloads or streamings, as the artists choose) are then free and registration-free to end users who have access to the sponsorship -- which is easily shared by the sponsor through email or other social networks. The sponsor may also publish this access for anyone who sees it to use.

And a sponsor can optionally send his, her, or its (an organization's) own "personal message" to everyone who downloads or streams a copy that sponsor paid for. This message can be a commercial product ad -- or much more.

Whenever all prepaid copies are exhausted, new free copies stop being available until new sponsorship is purchased. This requires public involvement right then in supporting an artist (or not) -- an improvement over the current practice of neglecting the issue until artists need to leave their field and find another way to make a living.

We call this system mass sponsorship because at any time, there are over a billion potential sponsors for any particular song or other work -- anyone who can pay online can be a sponsor. But in practice, we expect that an average sponsorship of at least 50 copies per purchase will be achievable. If so, then about 98% of all users of this system can be totally free, registration-free, hassle-free -- and even learning-curve-free (a huge advantage when introducing a new system, since the network-effect barrier can be eliminated).

The 2% or so of sponsors also will never need to register or create an account in the mass-sponsorship system. They will need to have a bankcard or other means to pay online. Most sponsors will have no learning curve either, since their online purchase is like any other.

The 98% of totally free users are not at all freeloaders, but critical to the income of the artists. They can promote effectively by word of mouth, since they will be encouraged to share paid access for free (unlike fans of corporate-owned music, who are usually criminalized for doing so) -- building the artists' constituency and helping to find sponsors. And any of the 98% might decide to become sponsors, funding the artists directly.

Incentives for Sponsors

Many doubt that sponsors will pay for music that others will hear, poetry others will read, or investigative articles or documentaries that others will view. We disagree. Sponsors already can get the music free, and are paying for other things they want.

Potential sponsors (anyone who can pay online, and can afford to buy a sponsorship, which might average $25 to $50, about 99% of which will go to the artists) have a smorgasbord of potential incentives to combine as they wish -- including the personal, cultural, religious, political, and more, not just commercial. Through their messages they can:
- get public recognition, accurately targeted into social circles they care about;
- meet new people who share common interests;
- support an individual artist, a band, or an art project;
- support a particular song or documentary the sponsor loves;
- support a particular philosophy or school of art;
- spread a political, religious, cultural, or other viewpoint (both by their choice of what content to sponsor, and also by their sponsor's message if they wish);
- create a gift costing any amount of money for their friends or colleagues (a gift that the recipients can pass on to others -- again and again through many levels if the gift is large enough);
- get information about how many people use their sponsorship, when, and from what parts of the world;
- contribute to a charitable or other cause that shares part or all of the sponsorship income of a particular artwork, which the artist donated to the cause;
- choose to distribute their sponsorship within their own social networks -- or instead, to buy into an existing social network (by invitation) to reach a highly select audience, such as leaders in the sponsor's field;
- change their outgoing sponsor's message at any time, only affecting future distribution of course;
- play the hero by refreshing an exhausted sponsorship -- instantly making the art available again, potentially all over the world;
- compete with rival sponsors to get their own message out first (before a critical election, for example) -- greatly increasing the income of the artists, which is the purpose of this system;
- and much more -- including all sorts of clever and humorous uses impossible to list in advance.

Note that the sponsor can reach a unique, dually targeted audience -- selected both by the content of the art, and also by the social networks that the sponsor chooses to share the sponsorship with. These targetings interact, as people in the social networks use their own judgment about which of their friends will probably like to art. Facebook can do something like this, but we don't know of anything besides mass sponsorship that selects an audience in exactly this way.

How It Works: The Smart URL

The "smart URL" is the heart and cornerstone of this mass-sponsorship system. It is the only way that sponsors or free end users ever interact with the system. (Artists distributing their work this way also have their own private dashboard, which does not go through the smart URL at all.)

The format of a smart URL is:
or in some cases,
(Usually the 'http://' can be omitted.)

We will explain the smart URL later. But here are a few facts for orientation:

* A smart URL can only sell sponsorships to one work, e.g. a band's song, or a journalist's investigative report. That smart URL can never sponsor anything else (this can be relaxed a little for collections). Instead a new smart URL is needed for the separate, and only the artist(s) can create one.

* Anyone who has a smart URL can click on it, and will see a very minimal public dashboard. They can use this dashboard to download a free (prepaid, sponsored) copy if one is available. Or they can click on a separate button to purchase a new sponsorship, of any size. Often the artists will offer a free sample (it is always available, whether or not a sponsored copy is -- important for helping potential sponsors decide if they want to sponsor this work, without having to bother with buying their own copy first, in case no sponsored copies are available).

* A smart URL can contain one, none, or any number of separate sponsorships (for the same work, of course, as noted above). It manages all of them separately, each with its own sponsor's message if any. When multiple sponsorships have prepaid downloads available, the smart URL chooses between them, based on rules managed by the artists. (For example, there might be a minimum sponsorship-price schedule, but sponsors can pay any amount more, for priority over other sponsors.)

* Note that a smart URL is not a real URL (Web link), as we will explain later. We used the familiar URL format only for human and computer convenience. You can think of a smart URL as a link to a database record.

Easy Security for the Smart URL

A smart URL holding sponsorship costing thousands of dollars could travel by ordinary, insecure email without encryption (or even be included in a fully public tweet).

This super-casual security works because almost any use of the sponsorship by almost anyone helps to support the artist(s) financially, promote the artist(s) and the art publicly, and distribute the sponsor's message -- the whole point of this system. There's no way for anyone (except sometimes the sponsor) to convert unused copies to cash. There's seldom much motive for anyone to empty the sponsorship by downloading thousands of identical copies of the same file -- but just in case of revenge or ideological battles, the server can make this sabotage technically difficult to do. Also, the sponsor shapes the distribution of his, her, or its sponsorship by choosing which persons and other networks to share it with.

Radical Ease of Use: No Learning Curve for Sponsors or End Users

This mass-sponsorship design has no learning curve at all for either sponsors or free end users. (There is a learning curve for the artists, or other publishers. But they are motivated.)

Basically there's no learning curve for end users, since Internet users already know how to click and download art or music free.

And there's no learning curve for sponsors, since they already know how to pay online. Sponsoring 5, 50, 500, 25,000 or some other number of copies of an artist's work is just another online purchase.

End users and sponsors alike do not even need to know that they are using this system. So they don't need to learn how to use it.

Ease of Introduction: No Momentum Needed

Usually the biggest problem facing a new online payment system is how to get the momentum of a critical mass of users. Without buyers it will not attract sellers; and without the sellers, it doesn't attract buyers. Networks become more useful as they grow larger (the "network effect") -- creating a huge barrier to the entry of new processes and ideas.

Next Steps

There's no software yet. Next step: a team to write a FOSS (free and open source) proof-of-principle server to support useful testing around the world.

My background: I wrote software professionally for 20 years -- but that ended 25 years ago with a career change. So I designed this mass-sponsorship proposal around classical programming methods, and look forward to working with developers with recent experience -- to combine the strengths of both, toward creating a minimalist, highly secure e-commerce infrastructure for paid-free distribution of online art, journalism, promotion, organizing, and other creative work.