Paying Publishers to Set their Content Free

There has been some discussion of content business models in which an artist solicits contributions from fans, and when she accumulates enough money, she writes a new book, records a new album, etc.  Some have even suggested that this model should replace copyright — that the resulting works should be made available to the world for free.

This is essentially a crowdsourced, democratized version of the patronage system, which existed hundreds of years ago among the rich (the Archduke of so-and-so commissions a composer; a Medici commissions a painter) and persists today in academia (professor gets grant money, does research and publishes papers) and elsewhere (TV network commissions musical artist to write theme song for new prime time series).

Those of you who have been following my writings for a while will know that I think this is a terrible model.  Nowadays it suffers from a fundamental oxymoron: it only works for artists that have already built up a fan base (Jill Sobule, Nine Inch Nails), but at the same time, it does nothing to reward those artists for the works they have already created.  In other words, an artist would have to have come up through the traditional system of selling copies of their works and then eschew the system that made them successful.  (Of course it is possible that the system isn’t providing enough value to such artists and therefore deserves to be eschewed, but the fundamental disconnect remains.)

For example, I would never participate in a system like that, for the simple reason that there are virtually no artists (writers or musicians) whose next work I anticipate eagerly.  I’m happy to pay for access to a large library, but I have no interest in being an artist patron.

At the same time, many media companies don’t exactly bend over backwards to make their “long tail” or “backlist” content available.  I do projects for publishers that involve conversion and management of their content to XML to facilitate repurposing, and it’s always the frontlist content that ends up being converted and managed while backlist content languishes.  Music companies make their back catalog available (to some extent) but do virtually nothing to market it.  (One exception that proves the rule is UMG’s great site, which is unfortunately down for a redesign right now.)

The main reason why content businesses don’t market their backlists is transaction costs.  Even in the digital age, it still costs money to reformat, manage, distribute, and market content.  If there were a way to compensate artists for their backlists, I might be slightly less skeptical of the neo-patronage system as a way forward.  Which brings me (finally) to the subject of this week’s article: a new business model that purports to do just that.

Eric Hellman is a denizen of the library world and an advocate of “open” content.  He created a business called Openly Informatics, whose primary piece of technology was OpenURL, a special type of URL that carries bibliographic information.  OpenURLs are most useful to the library community, which can use them to exchange information about what works are available where.  Hellman sold Openly Informatics to OCLC, the library technology company, in 2006.

Hellman’s new model is something he calls GlueJar.  He proposes to “unglue” e-books from their publishers so that they can be available to the world, DRM-free and under Creative Commons license.  Here’s the model: publishers sign on with works that they want to “unglue.”  They determine what they are willing to be paid for ungluing each work.  Users contribute money towards the ungluing.  When the threshold amount is reached for a given title, that title is unglued: it appears in all contributors’ e-book reader libraries and in repositories used for online public library access.  The publisher is paid, and GlueJar takes a commission.

In other words, publishers just need to determine a price for content being taken off their hands, and if the public is willing to pay that price, it happens.  (Users aren’t charged until works they want to unglue are unglued.)  No more transaction costs; anyone can distribute the content to anyone else.  Publishers could possibly retain subsidiary rights to the content, such as print on demand or derivative work rights.

EMI and Warner Music Group are highly unlikely to pounce on this model for their Beatles and Led Zeppelin back catalogs (if they even had the rights to, which we’ll get to momentarily); nor would Scholastic be interested in it for the Harry Potter series.  But for a certain slice of back catalog that content business don’t find it worth the bother to make available, it makes sense.  Eliminate the problem of distribution and hosting; just take the money and go away, and as Captain Kirk says, name your own price.

There are several roadblocks to this business model, including the fact that it would require renegotiating artists’ contracts and acquiring copyrights from book authors.   It also strikes me as something that’s easy to build but more challenging to market.  An entity that already attracts a large audience of book lovers and has the wherewithal to spread the word could make this happen; Scribd comes to mind.

In any case, it’s refreshing to hear about a model for “freeing” content that actually fits into the realities of authors and publishers instead of being an ideological construct or thought experiment.  GlueJar is in its early days, and its model could unfold into something even more practical.  I’m looking forward to watching as it does.


  1. […] rights.Bill Rosenblatt of the Copyright and Technology blog looks at the problem publishers have of finding good content creators and having a model that makes that content widely available. Towards the end of his post, he summarizes Eric Hellman’s proposed model for “ungluing […]

  2. Thanks for your interest in the Gluejar model! Thought you might like to know that we’re officially a startup right now, with employees and a web site (linked above) and everything. Still working on setting up the infrastructure we’ll need to properly unglue things, but perhaps you’d like to sign up for our mailing list (at the web site) so we can notify you when we’re ready to rock? You can also follow us all on Twitter at @gluejar/team. Expect a blog and more ways of interacting with us soon, too.

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