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Making content pay

by Giles Turnbull -- 2000/08/31

How do you make good content pay? If copyright really is dead (see WtW stories passim), what should a webmaster who wants to create something special do to protect the valuable material he or she wants to create?

This question formed the basis of an email discussion between myself and Ian Fenn, creator of Chopstix. A slightly edited version of that email conversation follows.

Ian Fenn: Say a content site offers two types of content - free and premium ... free will be available for all to view... premium needs to be purchased for a small amount of money.

WriteTheWeb: How do you make the free content worth reading? What I mean is, by definition, the free content will not be as valuable to the reader as the paid-for content. So there would presumably be a need to convince the punters that (a) the free stuff is worth their *time* (at least) and (b) *also* that the paid-for stuff is worth their money. How do you make both types of content compelling without giving the free stuff the reputation of PR puff material? Or do you simply add more *depth* to the paid-for stuff?

IF: Continuing the idea, in order to purchase the premium content, the visitor establishes an account with the site concerned, using their credit card or telephone. The minimum disposal is $3. The visitor is rewarded with further free content for signing up in this way, but the cost of the content they're interested in, say 10 cents, is deducted from their account.

WtW: Great if you can create an effective engine for handling micropayments.

IF: If they've opened an account with $3, you don't need a micropayment system.

IF: Having bought the content, the visitor has further choices:

a) Send it to someone as a gift.
b) Sell it to a trusted friend.
c) Give it away by cutting and pasting.

If they choose a), 50% of the cost of the content is again deducted from their account. If they choose b), the friend is invited to buy the content at the usual cost and the sender receives 50% of the charge should their friend purchase. If they choose c), then they can't be very nice! (and if discovered, they lose their account with the site and so too will the person who invited them to join, if appropriate.)

WtW: But how do you stop yourself being napstered? The chances are you would *not* be able to catch people doing this, unless you can steganographically mark your content. If it's plain text, I can't see how you can protect it. If your paid-for content is *that good*, what's to stop people just ripping you off in vast numbers?

I can see an analogy with shareware - this is shareware content. You're placing trust in the user to cough up. In old fashioned cyberculture terms, it's a great idea that works fine, and you'd make a moderate income. But not everyone would pay. (Can you insert *nags* in content??) And in the post-Napster cyberculture, what with copyright being dead and all that, your content is doomed from the outset.

IF: You don't stop people, but you encourage them not to by explaining that they can sell the recipe and earn money instead...

IF: With new content this arrangement can be coupled with the idea of the begging bowl.

WtW: *Just* like shareware!

IF: A fee for the content is arranged and once the fee has been pledged (from the aforementioned accounts) it is placed on-line. However, once double the original fee has been raised, the original donors get their donation back.

I have looked at placing the recipes in Adobe Acrobat or some similar format, or at displaying them using Java, but both ideas would just decrease usability.

I also looked at issuing the content as open source, but there would be nothing to stop serious commercial use of the material, i.e. a company producing a book of Chopstix recipes without my knowledge. In such situations I think it appropriate that the company concerned pay me a royalty which can then go on producing further recipes.

It would be difficult for me to protect the recipes with trademark law in the same way that Red Hat do with Linux.

We reproduce this discussion here because we want to provoke argument - can you put nags in content, or invest it with value that encourages people to respect copyright, rather than just pass it on?