Charlie Collins Portrait
Charles A. Collins

A Potential Revolution in Publishing

It goes without saying that the Internet has had a profound effect on the distribution of information in American society. One area where the effect has been particularly powerful is in the distribution of music. Where once consumers were limited to purchasing music in collections of songs - in the form of albums or tapes or CDs - the Internet now allows for songs to be purchased individually for extremely low prices. Similar changes are occurring in the distribution of software and written works.

Powerful as they are, though, these modes of distribution face very difficult issues with regard to the handling of copyrights. The technology underlying the Internet makes it so easy for people to copy and share content that the creators of that content are - justifiably - concerned that they will not be compensated for their efforts. Historically, that fear has been addressed through the application of copyright law.

Unfortunately, the enforcement of copyright law is extremely difficult in the Internet age. Laws concerning copyrights were developed during times when it was relatively difficult and expensive to make copies of original content - presses for the manufacture of books, of vinyl records, of photographs were expensive to own and operate, so the incidence of copyright violations was relatively low and relatively easy to prosecute.

Digital technology has altered that structure in a dramatic way. In a digital world, all that is required for the making and distribution of a limitless number of copies of created work is a personal computer. That reality creates enormous issues for the enforcement of copyright law - with the result that companies which create and distribute original content are going to enormous expense to create Digital Rights Management (DRM) mechanisms - which, in addition to being expensive, create a great deal of irritation for those who wish to enjoy the content.

The expense and aggravation associated with DRM efforts should lead the creators of content to ask an important question. That is: What if there were a way to bypass the copyright law altogether?

Determining whether it is possible to avoid copyright law first requires an understanding of why that segment of law exists. The two primary participants in transactions which concern created content are 1) the creator of the content and 2) the consumer of the content. The creator needs access to a large number of consumers in order to receive compensation for the effort which went into the creation, while the consumer needs some assurance that the content will be made available and that it will be of good quality.

Historically, satisfying those needs required the presence of another participant - a publisher - because it simply was not feasible for the creators of content to maintain the equipment and facilities required for the production and distribution of large numbers of copies of created works. The equipment and facilities simply were too expensive; in order to make it economical to manage those expenses, it was necessary for publishers to aggregate large numbers of content creators.

The advent of digital technology has changed that balance. It is no longer expensive to own and maintain the equipment and facilities associated with the creation and distribution of created works. Today, all that is required is a computer - something which content creators already own - and a connection to the Internet - which, again, content creators already own.

It remains the case that the two primary participants in an exchange of created content are the creator and the consumer. However, it now is possible for those participants to connect with one another directly - they no longer require the intervention of a publisher. If those participants can find a way to assure the creator that he or she or they will receive compensation he or she or they considers adequate, while at the same time assuring the consumer that he or she or they will receive access to the created content, then the market will function smoothly.

Since copying and distributing content is relatively easy, the thornier of those two problems is that of assuring that the creator will receive compensation for the effort associated with the creation of the work. At first glance, that assurance seems to lead back to the expensive and aggravating DRM mechanisms being developed by publishers who wish to continue the use of copyright mechanisms. However, it is worth considering another alternative. Imagine that creators of content were able to specify an amount of compensation before making a created work available - then imagine that, having received that level of compensation, the creator distributed the work freely.

That structure is precisely the one proposed by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier in their paper regarding the Street Performer Protocol (SPP). Essentially, the creator of original content proposes to the general public that the created work will be made available in the public domain, for free consumption, after the creator receives compensation he or she or they consider to be fair.

Within this idealized structure, there remain several important issues. One is that the creator must be able to trust that the compensation will be provided. The other is that consumers must be able to trust that the created work will be made available once the requested level of contribution has been reached. These issues can become very complex, with many nuances, but a mechanism which represents a first-order effort to address them is represented by "crowd-funding" sites. These sites allow anyone (really, anyone) to publicize a project and ask for funding - projects of any sort, funding of any amount.

The crowd-funding phenomenon is in the very early stages of its evolution, and there remain many issues with its use and operation. However, it represents a model which holds the promise of providing a beginning to a way to simplify the distribution of created works. Not only does this mechanism offer the promise of making works more readily available, but it may improve the compensation provided to creators, while at the same time eliminating the need for complicated - and intrusive and offensive - DRM mechanisms. Should this model prove an effective way to realize the Street Performer Protocol, it may also allow the Internet to create a disruption in the the way creative content is handled - a disruption in the real Clayton Christensen sense.

Christensen, Clayton M. (1997), The innovator's dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard Business School Press, ISBN 978-0-87584-585-2.

Kelsey, John, and Bruce Schneier (1998), The Street Performer Protocol, The Third USENIX Workshop on Electronic commerce, USENIX Press, November 1998.