We’ve been writing a lot about issues surrounding copyright and just how artists (of all sorts) can earn a living in this digital world, where so many of the barriers to copying and sharing content have fallen by the wayside. Being writers and musicians (well, Geoff is, anyway) as well as the type of people who try to explain complex situations, we’ve suffered conflicting thoughts. We believe that content creators should have the right to benefit financially from their work, but we believe equally strongly that those rights are granted to content creators to serve the public good. Any solution – however partial – to the legitimate concerns surrounding rampant copying of digital content of all sorts must take into account the needs of the content creators and the needs of the public good.
Plus, any discussion must acknowledge that once the genie of technology has escaped its bottle, it will never consent to return to the bottle’s confines. The world was never the same after the introduction of the printing press, the power loom, the automobile, the atomic bomb, and the birth control pill. The combination of digital content, high-speed Internet access, and peer-to-peer file sharing networks may herald an equally great sea change that – like it or not – will force changes in our social, business, and legal infrastructure.
Some may be good, others less so, but we have high hopes for a new project from Internet payment service Kagi. Unlike the much larger PayPal, Kagi has always moved carefully and stayed small, privately held, and profitable, giving the company the latitude to experiment. And what an experiment this one is!
Direct Support — The major tension in the music world has been that fans generally want to support their favorite artists, but they have no desire to line the pockets of the recording industry, especially knowing that artists never see the bulk of the cost of an audio CD. And that even ignores the granularity problem – you may be more than happy to pay $1 for a song you like, but that doesn’t mean you’re willing to pay $15 for the CD that contains it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to send money directly to artists, and certainly no way to pay the amount you feel a song, or a full CD, is worth. All that has changed now.
Kagi is just starting a project called Tipping Worldwide Entertainment Artists via Kagi (TWEAK), which enables exactly this – you can give money to any artist as a voluntary donation in appreciation of their work. The donation is explicitly not structured as a payment for downloaded music or a license to anything, since many artists undoubtedly have signed away such rights in their recording contracts.
Artists don’t even have to sign up with Kagi in advance. A fan can go to the TWEAK Web site and make a donation to literally any artist (the site lets you choose from a list of artists already in the system and you can always enter new ones). Kagi will do their best to find the artist and transfer the money. Kee Nethery, founder and CEO of Kagi, said that he hopes to set up a Web site where Internet users can help track down artists who prove difficult to find. And in the event that an artist has died, Kagi plans to distribute the funds to the artist’s estate or heirs, as appropriate. Again, because these payments are purely voluntary donations and aren’t tied to copyright, they can in fact be made to artists whose works are long out of copyright. Of course, there will be instances where Kagi simply cannot find an appropriate recipient for the donated funds. Kee has said that after a year of searching for the artist, the funds will go to an appropriate non-profit artist support organization. A future version of the site will identify which artists have been contacted, and for those who can’t be found, users will be presented with the choice of non-profit organizations to receive their donation.
You might wonder what’s in it for Kagi, and it’s quite simple. They hold all payments for four months before sending the money on to the artist, earning the interest on the accumulated funds (and as with their existing payment service, artists can opt to receive checks only every so often anyway, providing Kagi with additional interest earnings). Obviously, the income Kagi stands to earn on any individual payment is extremely small; they’re betting on a high volume of payments.
Getting the Word Out — Obviously, if TWEAK has to rely purely on word of mouth, the project likely won’t be able to collect significant sums for artists all that quickly. But some people have already suggested that a TWEAK URL could be added to MP3 songs’ filenames or to their ID3 tags, making it much easier for people who were downloading music on the Internet to express their appreciation to their favorite artists. Although TWEAK doesn’t currently support custom URLs for each artist, Kee said that feature is in the plans to make donating money even easier.
Even better, developers of some of the peer-to-peer file sharing network clients, such as LimeWire, Kazaa, Morpheus, and eDonkey2000, have expressed interest in adding TWEAK support. Instead of relying on clumsy URLs embedded in filenames or ID3 tags, the programs could read the artist name (usually embedded in the filename) and provide, perhaps through a contextual menu item, a direct link to a TWEAK URL. Future interfaces might even suggest donations at appropriate points in the process of searching for or downloading music.
Should TWEAK prove successful, I could see artists intentionally distributing their work purely on the Internet and working hard to develop the kind of followings that would provide a steady income stream. And that’s certainly the goal – a situation where artists earn a living writing, composing, or performing for the public good.