Information may want to be free, but it should still be kind enough to send a little money back home to its mother.

The Problem

One saying common among those active on the Net is "Information wants to be free." Our society, on the other hand, is built on the idea of payment for one's labors. These ideas seem incompatible when the fruit of one's labor is information. Is there any way they can be reconciled, or a workable compromise reached?

Some have attempted to force information to be physical objects: Copy protection, dongles, and other forms of Info Highway Ball & Chain. This sometimes sort of works, but generates quite a bit of ill will when it inconveniences legitimate users (horror stories mercifully omitted).

Others advocate free and unrestricted copying. This would be OK if creators of information could just walk into stores and pick up food and stuff free, move into any vacant dwelling without worrying about rent or mortgage, and get free use of communication links, electricity, and so on. But they can't, and are thus forced to spend time at things other than dreaming up free goodies for the rest of us.

Shareware sometimes works, if the user ever gets around to printing out the address, writing a check, putting it in an envelope with a stamp, and getting it into the mail. But it's so easy to just plan on doing it tomorrow.

So what's left? I have some ideas, based on the following principles:

  1. If you put out something a large number of people find useful and it can be freely copied and passed around, a large number of people will end up using it.
  2. Painlessly small payments from a large number of people add up.
  3. Small payments over a period of time are less of a Big Deal than one large lump sum.
  4. Traditional methods of collecting payments are inefficient for small amounts, but new technology may overcome this.
  5. In situations involving large numbers of users statistical sampling can give data almost as good as a complete census.
  6. If the creator of information benefits society as a whole, perhaps society as a whole should pay.
  7. If people are happy with something and a donation box is right there, many will feel good about putting something in more or less on impulse.


Assuming for now that society will stay with the "Earning a Living" paradigm, I see two main possibilities: The ASCAP model and the digital cash Penny Demon. For some things a voluntary payment scheme is a third option.


ASCAP is an association of songwriters and publishers. Radio stations, nightclubs, and other businesses that play music pay ASCAP a flat license fee. ASCAP then distributes this to composers based on statistical spot checks of which songs are getting played. (If you know of a link to more detailed info on ASCAP, please let me know and I'll see about linking it in.)

So imagine some kind of Software Sharing Association you could belong to. For your membership dues you get the right to copy and use any software (programs, novels, poetry, etc.) put out by any other member.

As part of your membership you are given a little program (call it a Nielson Demon) that sits in your machine and every now and then calls up the Association's offices and tells it which software items you've been using, and how often. For privacy protection there could be some sort of cryptographic scheme such that the Association doesn't know which items you specifically are using, but does know how heavily any item is being used. The Association adds up the usage figures and doles the money out accordingly.

And note that not every user need accept the Nielson Demon. We need only a sampling, like the TV ratings. Perhaps those who agree to install the demon would get a dues discount to induce them to do so. This would probably get more acceptances than necessary, but not all Nielson Demons need be activated. The Associations could decide whose demons to activate and whose to leave dormant without telling any user whether their demon was one of the active ones. This would avoid some of the biases inherent in a self-selected sample.

Digital Cash Penny Demon

Digital cash is a cryptography-based way of making untraceable payments over the Net. It is starting to be used, although not (as far as I know) in the way I'm about to describe.

Each copy of a participating program would include a Penny Demon that would send small payments in to the author of the program whenever the program was used. The payment rate would be stated up front as the price of using the program, and would be chosen so that over a program's lifetime a medium-heavy user would end up paying something near what we now think of as a reasonable price for a similar program bought in a store or by mail order. For most programs this should be painlessly small when considered over the short term, perhaps comparable to the cost of power to run a desktop computer.

Voluntary Donations

A third method, perhaps more applicable to games, literature, and other entertainment than to such things as text editors, would use Digital Cash in a voluntary payment scheme: "If you enjoyed this please pay what you feel it was worth," with a blank to type in an amount right there on the screen, or perhaps some form of multiple choice of suggested amounts. It's like people tossing coins into a street musician's instrument case, except that the musician could be doing something else while a robot does the actual playing, and the money would still be coming in.

Food for Thought

I know I've left many questions unanswered. For example, how do you keep dishonest people from handing out copies of stuff with the Penny Demon modified to send payments to them instead of the rightful author? How do you make digital payment schemes cost-effective for very small amounts? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure the experts in the various specialized fields involved will think of something.

So if you like the general approach, then instead of telling yourself and others "This won't work because...", try to think in terms of "Engineering work will be needed in this area." And think of all the things we can do once the problems are solved.

About the Author

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This page was created by Tom Digby and is copyrighted with a fairly liberal "fair use" policy.

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