Nickled & Dimed

Several times I’ve blogged about getting paid for online publishing, first summarizing the failures of past micropayment schemes, and later noting how Visa and other players seemed to be inching toward such systems. When getting paid for creativity came up at a dinner recently, I learned about a reverse concept called microrefunds — an as-yet-unrealized system in which all content would carry a charge, but in which browsers could opt not to pay for any individual item they felt excessive.

This unusual notion was introduced to me by online publishing pioneer and Electronic Frontier Foundation chairman Brad Templeton — whose idea it is. Here are what I take to be the key points of Brad’s essay.

“When people pay a flat fee for unlimited access, they start thinking of the resource they are accessing as free,” Brad writes. Instead of charging an upfront subscription fee, however, which might be a disincentive to going further, he suggests that publishers announce the opposite policy, that all content carries a charge.

“I suggest reversing things, so that paying for something is the default, and not paying requires special action,” he writes. “As long as payments are small and predictable, or clear and manageable, they could just be made automatically as media are downloaded or played.”

A little further down the essay, Brad makes some suggestions about implementation: “(T)he idea of developing a set of tags which define some prepared licence rights could work here. This could be combined with tags describing price rules for those various rights, including costs for download, per-use costs, per-use cost caps (ie. 4 cents per play, but no charge after 20 cents is paid) and broad descriptions of the classes of works. One could even charge for a “lifetime relationship” or an annual fee — You pay the artist $3/year and get everything she produces each year that you stay a fan.”

Although there are some good ideas here, including the tag stuff above and the notion, which Brad makes explicit, that people can refuse to pay for any charge they deem unwarranted — a guaranteed refund — I find the microrefund approach far less plausible than micropayments. And subscription the most likely model of all.

Let’s begin with the notion of getting a bill containing scads of itty bitty charges. Does reviewing it sound fun or fair? Not to me, even though I actually go through my cell phone bills on occasion (I’ve begged and browbeaten my family NOT to use costly directory assistance, and I point out any such charges in the vain hope they will cease and desist.) The notion of going through a content bill, or bills if I visit multiple microrefundable sites, sounds to me like a 21st Century torture. And some people will want to go beyond the act of vetoing objectionable charges. They will want to object to the publisher — and that requires either setting up an apparatus to deal with the objections, or eternally pissing off those who are not able to satisfy their ire by unloading it on a human being.

No, the only way I can envision payments — and, in deference to Brad I am willing to grant that it could be entirely my lack of vision — is by turning viewers into subscribers with an all-you-can-eat charge. Either that, or waiting for a workable micropayment scheme, which I simply choose to believe will become feasible.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

P.S. Brad has a good page summarizing responses to the copyright crisis which is worth a read.