October 24, 2000

I want a Wok: Bartering using OpenCulture

Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

In 1998 John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier released their Street
Performer
Protocol
, "an electronic-commerce mechanism to facilitate the
private
financing of public works." Jesse
Vincent

was just entering the working world. He read it with interest. About a
year
later, clearly an enthusiastic alum, Jesse went back to Wesleyan University, having
graduated but
a year before, for a reunion event that included a talk by fellow alum,
John Perry Barlow,
and the
thoughts on the discussion inspired by the Street Performer Protocol
advanced.

Now, another year later, Jesse isn't staying up till 4 a.m. hacking
code
anymore, he's hacking business plan. Along with his friend and partner
Jessica Perry
Heckman
and a five member board of advisors, Jesse is working to
solve
the current clash of new technology and old rules by establishing OpenCulture.org, a service they
hope
will bring distribution of books and music into the digital age, a site
that
Jesse believes will be the free library of the future.

Today's technology has brought the concept of copyright to the fore
for
judgement. Many now see an exceptional opportunity to renovate a
system
that has long served the large corporations better than the art it is
meant
to protect. Now, the corporate bodies that claim to facilitate an
artist's
dream of being able to make a living doing what they love, scramble to
maintain a hold on the industry. Granted, in the context of our
hyper-commericalist society, the notion of turning profit from
something
supposedly full of soul seems slightly oxymoronic, but perhaps there
needn't
be a crossroads for future musicians and their creative brethren.

If
the
concept of OpenCulture succeeds, it will remove the middle-man, long
the
foyer for the devil, entirely.

The idea behind OpenCulture is that an artist sets a price for their
work
and the public is invited to submit donations in an effort to reach
that
price. All transactions occur at the site and the money goes into a
fund
until the set amount is reached at which time it is handed over to the
artist and their work is made available, first to those that made
donations
and two weeks later to the public at large. It is then free and forever
available to anyone who wants it.

OpenCulture takes only 10% of each donation to cover its own
operating
costs. Shunning the gobs and gobs of money he could be making by
signing up
with a dot-com, Jesse hopes to one day make enough money off of
OpenCulture
to pay the rent and fill his belly. Currently running on little more
than
grants from family and money he saved from the last high-paying job his
brand of skills warrants these days, his fulfillment comes from the
idea
that he is acting justly.

The phrase he uses more than any other during our conversation is
"the
right thing to do." He uses it when referring to what the woman who
interviewed him for his job at Microsoft knew regarding the Internet Engineering Task Force. He
cites
it as the reason for the decision to make OpenCulture a non-profit.
And I'm
sure it's in his head when he resists my attempt to goad him into
bashing
Microsoft where he worked for his first year out of college. The most
he
offers is an anecdote about finding himself 10 feet from Bill Gates
and
suddenly realizing he had on his Linux T-shirt. Good but admittedly not
deliberate.

In big letters, the OpenCulture homepage reads, "Art should be
free.
Artists should be paid." OpenCulture is even currently applying to the
IRS to
get 501(c)(3) non-profit status which would make donations tax
deductible,
like when you give to a charity. Though many a starving artist has been
declared a worthy charity, in form, a lot of what Jesse says and
OpenCulture
plans to attempt smacks of idealism, perhaps naivete, maybe even a
touch of
political correctness.

In fact, now that he's fronting something he believes in, he's so
concerned about being good that he doesn't want me to tell you about
the
heavy petting he may have indirectly encouraged through the Open Source
software he developed into a matchmaking site on his college campus.
(It's
out there, better to fess up now than let it come out as a scandal
later.)

I find his concern endearing, sweet rather than righteous or wrong.
It's
definitely to his credit that he was empowering his community, one
traditionally maligned with interminable virginity, to get some. He
was
applying the new technology then in quite the same way he is now, to
achieve
justice, only what the artist is hard up for is cash. The matchmaking
site
was simply Jesse's first experiment using the Web as a tool for
expediency.

Cash is what OpenCulture will hopefully get artists. Jesse has no
idea
how much artists will ask or be able to get for their work. When I
express
doubt in the ability for this method to earn the kind of riches today's
successful artists do, he illuminates the fact that with OpenCulture
the
money goes directly from the consumer to the artist (except for the 10%
that
goes to the OpenCulture Foundation).

"The amount of money they'd have to raise to make $500,000 is
so
much less than what they'd have to make selling to record stores."
True, but
also without any of the marketing prowess or wheeling and dealing of
the
major labels and commercial outlets.

The idea that people will find what they like and then gather to pay
for
it without someone shoving it in their face is so simple and pure.
Along
with the joke about being glad he didn't learn too much from the
19th
century Russian language textbook he began studying when he was 9
because
later he realized that, "Hey, after the revolution they actually took
out a
few letters and changed the grammar a bit," this idealism is the only
detail
that authenticates his youthful geekness.

Come to think of it, he was in a fraternity which is an institution
normally credited with geek persecution not inclusion. He attended
Wesleyan, which seems more tweed than dweeb. And he earned a degree in
Russian and East European studies rather than anything scientific or
technical. He even worked for Microsoft. Jeez, on paper he sounds more
mainstream than I am. Heck, people even send him gifts off his Amazon
wish
list in appreciation for his work, and including the wok, they've all
been
gift wrapped.

I want a wok.

With this kind of record it's no wonder that his faith in the public
is
at an all-time high. He's been involved in the Open Source community
since
elementary school, participating in BBS communities and Apple II user
groups. Turns out that fraternity was a literary society. And he owns
ferrets, a pet traditionally coupled with enthusiast owners. He only
knows
a discerning minority. It's a good thing he's not looking to cash in on
this
project because barring a serious overhaul of the impressionable
masses,
it's likely to stay as niche as the art of programming already is.

Category:

  • Open Source
Click Here!