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The Street Performer Protocol and Digital Copyright by JohnKelsey and BruceSchneier.


From the website...

We introduce the Street Performer Protocol, an electronic-commerce mechanism to facilitate the private financing of public works. Using this protocol, people would place donations in escrow, to be released to an author in the event that the promised work be put in the public domain. This protocol has the potential to fund alternative or "marginal" works.

StephenKing? is doing this on http://www.stephenking.com with his novel ThePlant?.

StephenKing? is doing something similar to the Street Performer Protocol (SPP), but he diverges from it in important ways. (To his credit, King doesn't seem to claim he's following the SPP.)

In the SPP, a limit amount is set, and the work is done if the limit amount is reached. In SPP it doesn't matter how many people pay (one person could pay the limit amount), or how many get a "free ride".

This is the critical difference--in the SPP the backers do not lose their money unless the work is done. This is especially a problem for the people paying more than the minimum. One might be more willing to offer more *if* it will make a difference (or be refunded).

Why we need it

Alternatives to copyrighted works

How it works

Very simply, instead of going to a publisher, an author would go directly to her audience and release a work in parts announcing that, say, when the total donations reach "$100 000" she will release the entire work for everybody (not just those who paid). I quote:

In some sense, this is like having the author take orders for his next book, and only start writing (or printing) once he has enough advance orders. Alternatively, it can be seen as having all this writer's fans get together and offer him a price to write his next book. Still another way to think of this protocol is as a kind of ransom note for a new book; if the ransom isn't paid, you won't be seeing the book anytime soon.

What can go wrong

Feedback will find the optimal price range.

This hurts the author mostly, possibly discouraging future donations.

The money can be held in escrow. Failure to publish results in automatic refund of funds. Cryptography may save the day here.

The bad reputation of the author will get will punish her sufficiently for this.

Regarding the third point, the solution may be to bring the publisher back in as the trusted third party holding the money. Also, the publisher can do traditional publisher things like selecting, editing, marketing the works.

What really goes wrong

Each person individually benefits by not paying anything, but letting others pay in their place. After all, why pay yourself if other rubes will front the money? Each person draws the same conclusion and doesn't pay. As a result, the work doesn't get released. So, while individual expected outcomes are higher by not paying, the collective outcome is much lower. This is classic TragedyOfTheCommons.



The Street Performer Protocol is effectively a means of collecting private funds for public works. It allows for all kinds of alternative public creative (literary, music, video) works. It can be used to improve public-domain software. Software developers could announce a price structure to add various features to an existing public-domain software package, and users could pay for the features they want. [...] Think about television serials. [...] It might be possible to keep a low-budget video series running for years by having a few episodes always queued up. [...] In effect, the Public Broadcasting System works in this way: people contribute funds to see certain types of programming with everyone benefiting from what is eventually shown on the air.

[ss: Re: public software, see http://www.sourcexchange.com. Re: PBS, well, that doesn't work very well at all, no matter what Dr. Who says.]

Interesting... I am wondering whether it should be easier for readers to get their money back. For example, you could give 5 days notice, and if the work isn't published in those 5 days, you get a refund. This would reduce the risks of speculation.

King's 75% thing doesn't seem well thought out. Suppose only 1 person had downloaded the first chapters. He might have had to complete the book for a payment of $1. Suppose I download it (and pay) and put it on my website, which I cunningly have served from a juristiction that doesn't respect US copyright laws. King has no way of knowing what the "honest" percentage is. -- DaveHarris

Well, King also had a $100 000 USD threshold to achieve. But I believe he's trying to enforce some sort of honour system where he believes "copying" of his copyrighted work is stealing. Which it is, but that's besides the point. At least he's moving in the right direction.

What I think was really stupid was limiting transactions to $1. Indeed, the protocol (which doesn't have this limit) is pretty crafty in this way. Once people are into a narrative, prematurely terminating the narrative (before suitable closure has been achieved) causes great stress in the audience. Sometimes this is used for effect at the end of some works, leaving hanging endings. But if you have ever bought a used novel only to find the last few pages have been ripped out, you'll know what I mean. Or lost the book while you were in the swing of things. That drives me crazy. This tension would probably propel some people to pay upwards of $50. -- SunirShah

King allows you to pay multiple times and not bother to download.

I keep confusing the system with "try before you buy", which of course it isn't. I don't think I would want to start reading before the whole book was available to me. On the other hand, I might be willing to place a standing order with the bookshop for the next NealStephenson, sight unseen. To me it makes a lot of sense for the books which haven't yet been written at all, but the protocol article didn't like to think about that case.

By the way, Stephen King was the first major author to publish online. He published his short story, "Riding the Bullet" in March 2000 through Simon & Schuster, selling 500 000 copies in the first two days--enough traffic to crash the server. -- SunirShah

http://www.openculture.org is attempting to make a go of something similar to the StreetPerformerProtocol. Differences include the fact that sponsors get access to the work a few weeks before the general populace and that the work in placed under a liberal license but not into the public domain. If OpenCulture gets 501c3 status from the IRS, donations will be tax deductible.


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