September 26, 2001

OpenCulture.org: A new way to distribute music and books online

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

An Open Source-inspired alternative to royalty-based payments for musicians and authors got a boost earlier this month when the U.S. Internal Revenue Service gave it public charity status.

OpenCulture.org president Jesse Vincent, a veteran Open Source programmer, says he expects the year-old Web site to take off now that it's been accepted as a 501(c)(3) charity by the IRS. Vincent hopes to have artists and musicians contributing their work within a couple of months.

OpenCulture.org is designed to work as a twist on the pay-to-view revenue model on the Internet. Authors or musicians post a description of their works and set a dollar amount they need to post their works. Fans then can donate virtually any dollar amount they want, and when the escrow account has enough money for the artist to release his work, fans who've paid can download it.

A few weeks later, the artist's work is released to the general public, although the artist still retains the copyright to his work For more details check out their How it Works page.

The OpenCulture team is still feeling its way with some issues, but the way for the Web site to make money is to charge 10 percent of the artist's cut, which Vincent says is lower than most agent fees. "That's sort of the initial plan, 10 percent," he says. "If it turns out that 10 percent is way too much money, and we're rolling in dollars ... we'd probably eventually drop that donation percentage."

Vincent and his handful of helpers say on their Why OpenCulture page that their method will cut production costs for musicians and authors, while giving Internet users the "opportunity and the responsibility to make sure that books and music are available to the widest possible audience."

"It's my hope that things are going to ramp back up again now that we have public charity status," says Vincent, the creator of RT, an Open Source, industrial-grade ticketing system. "Most of the folks we've talked to are very positive about it, especially smaller artists. They want us to get going so they can start using the system. Some folks who are more used to the traditional royalty system are rightfully concerned about a revenue stream that is not royalty based."

But Vincent believes the concept can work for both unknown and famous artists. "I think it's going to benefit everybody just about equally," he says. "A small band is obviously asking for much less money, but on the 'Net, it's not hard to build a following. This is a hypothetical example, we have not talked to Miss Spears, but if Britney Spears wanted to release her next work through OpenCulture, she has an awful lot of fans who'd be willing to put up five, ten, twenty bucks for the release. It's a model that scales down to a very specific fan base and up to a very large, more global fan base."

The idea for OpenCulture came from an essay, The Street Performer Protocol and Digital Copyrights by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier. "I had mulled it over for a couple of months, and ended up talking with some friends from college. We started riffing on the idea. Actually, we originally talked about doing it for software -- helping Open Source programmers get paid to do their thing."

As Vincent's group was considering a site to pay programmers, a couple of other sites emerged, so they went back to thinking about works of art. "We started looking at it a little harder and realized this actually did make more sense for books and music," he says. "From there, we just started writing and planning and designing."

The next steps for OpenCulture.org is publishing a draft of the OpenCulture License on the Web. Eventually, Vincent hopes to offer artists several license options, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Open Audio License, although Vincent believes some artists will see that license as too free with their copyrights. "It is so open-ended," he says of the EFF license. "It's much more like the GPL for audio than a lot of artists would be comfortable with." OpenCulture's license would allow redistribution of the work "without giving up all their intellectual property rights," he adds.

Vincent also hopes to get some grants to help sustain the project. "We do need money to make this go forward," he says. "We've been doing this on a shoestring, which has been enough to pay the lawyer and keep the server in co-lo."

Category:

  • Open Source
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