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Bounty Markets for Open-Access eBooks

From “go to hellman”

Bounty Markets for Open-Access eBooks

Mozart: The Piano Concertos In January 1773, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart placed advertisements asking patrons to “subscribe” to the three piano concertos he was writing. If he received enough support, the concertos would be finished by April, and subscribers would receive beautifully copied manuscripts. More importantly, they would have the pleasure of supporting the creation of a great work, which would be performed around the world. The  resulting concertos, K413-415 are today considered important works, but it took quite a long time for Mozart to gather enough subscribers.This old model for publishing was modernized with the addition of cryptographic assurance layers by cryptographers John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier, who started their examination of intellectual property business models with a deep pessimism about the long-term technical viability of digital rights management systems. Kelsey and Schneier dubbed their system “the street performer protocol” in tribute to a friend who friend who had travelled Europe earning money with bagpipe performances. Presumably, the friend found that he could earn more money by passing the hat before or during a performance rather than after.
Street Performer Protocol is a fund raising method designed to support the free release of a creative work. The creator agrees to release the work only after a threshold amount of money is pledged by supporters. For this reason, the method has been termed a “threshold pledge system“. Kelsey and Schneier describe how a third party, who they term the “publisher” can provide supporters with a layer of assurance that the creator will live up to his end of the bargain if the threshold is reached; otherwise, pledges are refunded to the supporters.

Another term that has been used for systems of this sort is “ransom publishing”, which is particularly apt when an author gives away the first few chapters of a novel, but holds the rest of the chapters hostage until a suitable ransom is paid by readers who want to read the cliffhanger ending.

Somehow I doubt that a cryptographic assurance layer would have helped much with Mozart’s concertos. Nor do I think that Mozart would have had much success giving out the first movement before asking for contributions.

What might have helped Mozart a lot, however, would be a market.

Markets function by bringing together many buyers, many products, and many sellers. If Mozart had been able to offer subscriptions to every music lover in the world, and those music lovers had easy access to all the composers in the world, Mozart would have been a very wealthy man.

Web sites that attempt to create markets for creative work around threshold pledge systems are definitely a trend. Kickstarter is perhaps the best example- They provide opportunities for creative people to solicit support for worthy projects. In many cases, the creators provide benefits for people who have supported their work. Another example is FashionStake, a website which lets ordinary people support fashion designers by pre-ordering designs before they hit stores. Supporters of successful projects thus get special access and special prices for the latest designs from the world’s top designers.


Kickstarter and FashionStake share several characteristics. The number of projects available for support is not huge; there are selection filters that have a side effect of preventing significant competition between projects. Also, there is an assumption that projects will not be executed if the threshold funding is not reached. The incentive to keep the threshold price low is that projects priced too high will not achieve their support threshold, and thus won’t receive any funding at all.

I’ve been thinking about how to apply threshold pledge systems to the sponsorship of open access for ebooks. I believe that with some modest but essential innovations, a sort of threshold pledge market could become a powerful economic force in many segments of the ebook business.

The first innovation would be to create a market that covered ALL books. According to the Google Books team, there are over 100 million books that can be identified in the world; a relatively small fraction of them are out of copyright, and an even smaller fraction of them are available as open-access ebooks. Why not let people sponsor any and every book they cared about?

Note that these books have already been written and published, so the sponsors are not being patrons of artistic creation, as in Kickstarter, FashionStake, and Mozart’s concerto subscribers, instead, they are posting a reward for conversion to open access. It’s wrong to think of this as “ransom publishing”- a parent doesn’t kidnap their own child! A better way to think of it is posting a “bounty” for the delivery of the ebook into a Creative Commons compatible license.

A second innovation follows from the first. If you allow the posting of a bounty on any book, then a lot of books will get only minimal sponsorship. Many of these books may be “orphans“, without known rightsholders for the public to purchase ebook rights from. The only way to keep sponsorship dollars from sitting unused is to allow them to be posted to many books at once. The first book to claim a bounty would take home the money.

Multiple commitment of sponsorship dollars has two interesting effects. First, it magnifies the impact of sponsorship dollars. An commitment ratio of 100 to one allows 10 million dollars of support to look like a billion dollars offered to rightsholders. Smart rightsholders who participate at the right time could walk away with sizeable rewards. Second, multiple commitment puts rightsholders in competition with each other for sponsorship dollars. If two books share many sponsors the bounty for one book would go down significantly when the owners of the other book decide to accept their posted bounty. Rightsholders are thus discouraged from waiting too long for sponsorship dollars to build.

None of this will work if sponsors don’t get something for their money. It seems to me that the released ebooks should include some sort of recognition text, but maybe just loading the sponsor’s devices automagically with released ebooks would be enough. Given some format validation, the released ebooks would slide easily into Google Books, OpenLibrary, Feedbooks, other places- LibraryThing, GoodReads, WeRead, GetGlue and devices/apps- Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, Ibis Reader. Perhaps most importantly, the released ebooks could be curated and preserved by libraries around the world, something that can’t happen properly with today’s copyright system. That alone would be enough to get me to participate.

Mozart would approve, I think.

Posted by Eric Hellman at 11:28 PM

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Crosbie Fitch October 25, 2010, 12:00 pm

    Does “Posted by Eric Hellman 11:28pm” mean that was the date/time he posted the article on his own blog – or the time he posted it to C4SIF?

    Anyway, here’s the comment I posted on his blog:

    I saw this in 2000 around the same time as Kelsey & Schneier – independently.

    I’m working on a generic back-end The Contingency Market to support all manner of sites based on a similar principle: bargains between large numbers of people and those responsible for the performance of public events or delivery of public goods, e.g. publishing an intellectual work. I hope to demonstrate the idea with something rather simple: 1p2U.com – those readers of a blog who want to encourage the blogger sponsor further articles at a penny each.

    You’re one of the few (if not the only one I’ve come across) to recognise that one only needs a single penny on the table to back thousands of penny pledges, and thus amplify the liquidity of all commissions, and magnify the total funding available.

  • Roderick T. Long October 25, 2010, 1:25 pm

    Btw, Herbert Spencer also funded his ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy series (comprising First Principles, Principles of Biology, Principles of Psychology, Principles of Sociology, and Principles of Ethics) by advance subscription. John Struart Mill was one of the first subscribers.

  • Estebandido October 25, 2010, 1:25 pm

    Good timing. I have Kevin Carson’s latest book about 85% converted to ePub, but paying work has pushed it down the priority list. If it were to *become* paying work, it would pop back up.

  • Eric Hellman October 28, 2010, 8:19 am

    Note that the use of this blog post from the Go To Hellman Blog is subject to the Go To Hellman Blog License Agreement.

  • Crosbie Fitch October 28, 2010, 9:21 am

    Eric, if you had made that license a little more obvious no doubt Stephan would have observed it to the letter! I gather he’s very particular about that sort of thing. 😉

    I certainly think Stephan could have made it a little clearer that this item was authored by Eric Hellman, and NOT Stephan Kinsella, moreover that it was posted on this blog by Stephan and not by you.

    There’s nothing wrong with copying, but making a mockery of the truth of authorship and publication is well on the ‘wrong’ scale.

    • Stephan Kinsella October 28, 2010, 9:34 am

      Crosbie, I don’t think it’s unclear who wrote it. Just click the link for crying out loud. I already told hell man I wd be happy to delete the post if he wants. No one made a mockery out of anything.

      • Crosbie Fitch October 28, 2010, 9:53 am

        Just bear in mind that what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to your readers. It is bound to be clear to you what you wrote or didn’t write, but it is not clear to everyone else, especially if you are attributed as the author.

        The title of this article is “Bounty Markets for Open-Access eBooks by STEPHAN KINSELLA on OCTOBER 25, 2010”.

        Don’t you think there’s a wee chance someone might conclude that you are the author of Eric’s article by the same title?

        We’re not going to get very far demonstrating the right to copy if people can then demonstrate that its suspension by copyright is a necessary defence against plagiarism.

        • Eric Hellman October 28, 2010, 10:39 am

          Hey guys, it’s cool, but I don’t think you actually *read* the license agreement. It’s worth it, I promise!

          • Stephan Kinsella October 28, 2010, 11:10 am

            I read it. Funny, but I’m still not sure how serious you are.

            Crosbie, I don’t agree with you. I linked to the post, his name appeared at the bottom, he is obviously not a blogger on my site, and I offered to change it if he wishes. Nothing more can reasonably be expected of me. You seem to be pettifogging now to beat the drum of your idee fixee about “intellectual property” making sense despite IP law being unjust.

      • Crosbie Fitch October 28, 2010, 2:26 pm

        Stephan, I’d use the term ‘constructive criticism’ rather than ‘pettifogging’. Making authorship clear is not a matter of appending a caveat, as if a disclaimer in the small print. Indeed, it should be a simple and easy matter, but that doesn’t make it trivial.

        If you recognise that clarity and accuracy concerning attribution is important, that’s good enough for me. I’m not demanding perfection. 🙂

To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.