Welcome to the 21st Century

The digital realm is a new world. And it’s a challenge for artists.
With the Internet, their audience is larger than ever before; peer-to-peer
distribution of material via networks like Gnutella, Napster, and
Freenet allows an artist’s works to travel quickly around the world,
in the most efficient means possible. Surely it’s a new Golden Age.

Hardly. But the problems aren’t necessarily what you’ve been told.
We hear that these peer-to-peer systems should be outlawed, that the
users are law-breaking criminals (“pirates”), and
that your right to listen to, view, or even copy a digital work should
be “managed”. Nonsense.

But…how do we credit the artists? How do they receive (just) compensation?
Or do we just give up on that, and make everything “public
domain”? NO. Not necessary! The non-existence of copyright
is non-optimal – creators deserve to keep their names on their work.
But historically, content “creators” (controllers)
have extended this control of copyright into a monopoly on distribution.
This is a model that is out of sync with the realities of the digital,
connected world.

Regardless of the efforts of the record industry, Hollywood, or even
the US Congress…copying of digital files is here to stay. Technological
anti-copying efforts only place barriers between artists and their
fans; many similar techniques were tried during the 1980’s by software
companies, and for the most part failed. Overly strict legal anti-copying
efforts become even worse; now the copyright holders are making criminals
out of enthusiastic fans!

In our new world, copyright of creative material remains with the
creator, but distribution is not under anyone’s control.

So, if you love it, set it free. But then, how do you pay your rent?

Paying artists

There are numerous ideas floating around on how artists can be paid;
micropayments, for example, have been discussed before. A great overview
is at Scott McCloud’s website: see Reinventing Comics and http://
www.scottmccloud.com/comics/icst/icst-5/icst-5.html (Coins of the

But things can get complicated. If we try to FORCE payment, we have
to have a robust “digital rights management” (DRM)
structure that creates overhead, increases complexity, and reduces
flexibility. I say…let’s try something different. Let’s make this
protocol lean and mean…so lean, in fact, it’s VOLUNTARY.

I take inspiration from Courtney Love’s comment on “the tip
jar” [see http://www.holemusic.com/speech/ ] Simply said,
pay the artist like you’re paying a tip…what you want/think is appropriate,
when you want.

This requires a big change in how people think about paying artists
(to say the least).


When I want to tip an artist, I must not only have a WAY to pay (let’s
say micropayments for now), I must know WHO to pay. Given this, let’s
examine two different tipping scenarios:

  1. Planned payments directly to particular, known artists.
  2. Spontaneous payments to “media” (ie, a song I like),
    rather than to particular (known) artists.

#1 is (comparitively) easy. Even today, many artists have websites
that allow payments. The micropayment schemes like Paypal, Amazon,
etc. allow relatively small payments to be efficient. And since you’re
at the website, payments are a no-brainer. No…it hasn’t widely caught
on yet. I realize that. But it’s possible. And the easier we make
the process, the better.

#2…that’s where things potentially get interesting. The idea is that
an artist creates something, tags it in such a way that s/he is identified
with the work…and then scatters it to the four winds.

When I subsequently discover this work – I find that I like it. I
didn’t (and still don’t) know anything about the artist; a friend
emailed me a link to the file, or I downloaded it off Gnutella. Doesn’t
matter. But I dig the music, so now (a) I want to learn more about
the artist, and (b) I want to give them a tip. $2…$5; maybe they
suggest something. Whatever. Something small enough that I don’t sit
there and agonize over it; I just do it.

Proper use of cryptography for authentication can give me a way to
do that. Much as websites are authenticated via their signed SSL certificates
for secure connections, a song, movie, or other digital file can have
a signed certificate as well. And digital signatures don’t have to
be part of the work – they can be detached, in separate files, so
there’s no need to retrofit already popular formats like Ogg Vorbis,
DivX, and MP3.

The Tip Jar

Here’s how it could work:

Artist’s process:

  • Artist creates new song (Ogg Vorbis, MP3, etc. format. Doesn’t matter.)
  • Artist includes in song tags identifying themselves, the song, and
    suggesting a “tip” (amount and format; perhaps Paypal
    and an email address, in the form of paypal://artist@indiemuse.com?$2″)
  • Artist provides for a detached signature for the media file. This
    could be done with GPG. Artist could sign file himself, or use a trusted
    3rd- party arbitrator. With a widely-trusted arbitrator, fewer signatures
    are needed to build up a valid “Web of Trust”. Multiple
    signatory “webs” can mutually co-exist; some artists
    could go it alone, others could band together and sign each other’s
    keys, others could use arbitrators. The protocol doesn’t care.
  • Detached signature is placed in a “signature store”.
    This repository is publicly accessible as a website, and also via
    XML-RPC, SOAP, etc. Signatures can be stored using their hash as a
    key, or any other unique descriptor. Signatures can also be disseminated
    in other ways; via the artist’s website, FTP archives, Freenet, etc.
    The wider the better.

User’s process:

  • User downloads hot new song from Gnutella.
  • User plays song using XMMS, WinAmp, etc. The media player includes
    a “Tip Jar” plugin.
  • User presses “tip this artist”
  • Plugin generates the key for the media file; a SHA-1 hash, unique
    file name, whatever. The plugin uses this key to lookup and retrieve
    the signature from the “signature store”.
  • If the signature is unavailable, you can’t tip; without authentication,
    anyone could insert a payment request into an MP3 tag. There’s no
    assurance that the original artist is the one being compensated.
  • If signature IS found; the plugin validates (with GPG, for example).
  • If GPG verifies the signature, that indicates that the tags inside
    the media file indicating who and where to pay are VALID. Otherwise,
    they aren’t (the file could have been altered).
  • Use info from tags to begin payment transaction. (Open window to PayPal,
    eGold, whatever; be creative)

So what’s the upside? For the artist, it’s like judo…use the attacker’s
strength against him. The speed and ease of digital copies suddenly
becomes a good thing; it’s to the artist’s ADVANTAGE to disseminate
as widely as possible. Instead of wide distribution meaning lots of
“piracy”, it means a wider audience. More fans for
the artist, more hands for The Tip Jar.

Next steps

What’s necessary for this to become a viable alternative? Several
things…many of which, I realize, can’t happen overnight. For one…artists
have to be willing and able to participate. A creative work would
need to be released under a copy-permissive license, such as the EFF’s
Open Audio License, or the FSF’s GNU Free Documentation License. Or
maybe something else; these are just examples, and IANAL (I Am Not
A Lawyer), but would be important for the creative work to be released
in some fashion that would not disallow copying and redistribution.
Unfortunately, this probably means that most existing work that people
are interested in (music by major artists, movies, etc.) would be
unavailable; the copyright restrictions on those works most certainly
DO preclude such copying (just ask Napster).

The tools, of course, are needed. Some of them already exist, in various
stages of usability. I’ve started a project at Sourceforge called
Indiemuse to try and bring things together to make these ideas a reality;
let me know if you’ve got ideas.

But probably most important…we, the fans, would have to be willing
to participate as well. In such a system, the artists are depending
on us to “do the right thing” and tip them. It’s optional. But
it’s the right thing to do. And I think that with simple enough tools,
and a belief that their money was going primarily to the real creators,
people would indeed pay. Perhaps in small numbers at first, but we
have to start somewhere. This new world gives us a real opportunity
to eliminate the middleman, and connect artists more directly with
their fans. I hope we can make it happen.

Ken Kennedy (kkennedy@kenzoid.com)

File translated from TEX by  TTH, version 2.92. On 6 Apr 2002, 23:53.

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