Opt-in Distribution


At the end of the day, the question is always, “What do you want to do?”   This is one of the key elements in the checklists created for engineering and art clients.

As much as technological solutions are used to solve certain sorts of problems, they aren’t always ideal.  In dealing with safety issues, for example, technology can help (emergency stops, light curtains, etc.), but if people want to override safeties, they usually can find a way around them, which usually ends badly.   The key is to make people want to use safety equipment, or at least make the barrier to using them low – making safety glasses look cool and fashionable, for example, or making safety shoes comfortable and in a wide range of styles.

In another example, copy protection for software is usually bypassed (in commercial software, in music, etc.) relatively quickly, and there is a never-ending war between people wishing to copy protect things and people who are breaking the protections.

Copy Protection Solutions

One solution to such copy protection problems is not to have any at all; this ‘free culture’ idea is put forth by many; Nina Paley is a stellar example of this (she did an award-winning piece, Sita Sings The Blues), as is Amanda Palmer, who has also done some amazing work in getting people to pay for things up front (i.e., through Kickstarter and the like).

Over a decade ago (before Kickstarter), I conceived of an idea that used a technological solution not for copy protection, but for a mechanism that would enable people to help the spread of easily-copyable digital media, and still allow some commerce to take place.   In some respects, it is akin to multi-level marketing, but with one important change – you don’t have to participate, if you don’t want to.   The other difference (from Kickstarter) is that it allows people to participate in the success of the project that they are backing.

In short, it allows people to tell others about an artist they like, and allow those artists to get paid, and let people doing the word-of-mouth (or word-of-click) promotion to participate in the success of the people they think are doing great art.

The ratios of how much someone should get paid, legal issues, and the like do need to be sorted out, of course.   But something like this might work.

This doesn’t need to apply to the arts either; it could apply to other sorts of software as well.  Even if no money changed hands, it would be an interesting way of charting ‘who was there first’, which is sometimes a perk for some folks.

The Original Plan

(I wrote this way back in May of 2002, before friends (The Dresden Dolls) hit the bigtime. I passed it to a few friends then, but it didn’t go any further than preliminary discussions. I was trying to come up with a system for distributing music without copy protection, but making sure people still got paid for their labors. This could also apply to the written word, digital photos, and the like.)

This process requires some figuring out, some legal issues to be resolved, and some computer programming stuff, but it’s relatively minor. What needs to be ironed out is the process of how to make people want to pay for things they would normally get for free.

The Problem

It’s easy for musical artists to distribute their songs online nowadays; they can post MP3s of songs, and fans can download them (this also applies to film, but the bandwidth requirement, of course, is larger). Unfortunately, they don’t get paid if everyone passes along these perfect digital copies. So, how do we make it so they get paid, their music gets distributed, and there isn’t any copy protection on the copies?

The (Possible) Solution

In short – an opt-in distribution scheme, where everyone gets paid, if they decide to participate.  And you certainly don’t have to participate (but it is worth your while, if you want to be part of the plan). I figure the key is to use people’s desire to propagate cool stuff they know of *and* use their desire to get paid, or at least get part of the action if they are helping out in this endeavor.

Let’s take the Dresden Dolls, for example. Amanda and Brian want to maximize the distribution of their song, however, they don’t want to get involved with record companies, but they also would like to get paid for their hard work. Here’s how it works (again, there are problems, but I think you can see where I’m going with this).

They sell their album to 10 people, at $5 a pop.  They make $50 at this level. If these people want to opt-in to the program, they e-mail a ‘ Central Repository’, otherwise, they can take the album, and do with it what they want (these people would be considered 1st tier people). Yes, they can make a zillion copies and give them away, but this is where giving the album to other people can pay off for these first people (and others) – if they opt in to the process.

If a 1st tier person opts in, they exchange their e-mail address (or a number, or something unique) to the person they are selling the album to (who would be a 2nd tier person). The person selling the album pockets $5 per album (or whatever). Now, the person who receives the album can go on their merry way. However, if they opt in as well, they send an e-mail to the Central Repository, and the Central Repository knows that the person upstream is an album dealer, and *should* owe the  Central Repository a slice of the cash they collect. There is nothing to prevent the 1st tier person from not paying the Central Repository, of course, unless the Central Repository posts this on a website.

The 2nd tier person is free to do the same thing as the 1st tier person; sell the album for $5 a pop, and exchange e-mail addresses (or some such thing) with the buyer. If they opt in, they owe the Central Repository a set fee (as you would if you bought the album directly).

There are a few interesting things about this process. We can set up a gradated scale, so the closer you are to Amanda and Brian, the more money *you* get as well; if you sell 20 albums, the ‘royalty’ can be less (or a fixed fee). Also, if you buy the Dresden Dolls’ album from someone in the 1st or 2nd tier, you can be considered to have ‘been there first’, and have bragging rights (yeah, I was a 2nd tier person for band X…not a 4th or 5th tier person…).

Now, what is to prevent any Nth tier person from just giving the album or songs away? I’m thinking there must be a mechanism where it is in the best interest of the Nth tier person to make sure a) the 0th tier person knows about them, the b) Nth tier person is rewarded for perpetuating the cycle. For example, if you are a 2nd tier person, and the 3rd tier person gets a lot of people to opt-in, you should split some of your reward with the 1st tier person you bought from, and the 3rd tier person (who is busy convincing people for a 4th tier).

The key to making this work is to have a website you can just go to, enter the identifier (e-mail address or something else), and get your *own* identifier you can pass on to other people. Even if you post the song online, you can post it like:

Dresden Dolls – Good Day – Screamer101

so that people know who is responsible for the song; when they go to the Dresden Dolls site, they can put in Screamer 101, and get their *own* registered tag name, so they too can post the song.


OK, the problems are legion. Someone could post the song to their website and say, “hey, take it, it’s for free.” But it would be devoid of anything special. One solution to this problem is that we structure a payout at the end of the year to all the registered folks so that the band gets their fair share, but the lower tiers get some of that cash as well. If someone registers, and doesn’t pay, the band can put them on a list of known deadbeats, and people can berate them to pay up, or their ‘lineage’ dies out. This might be the best case scenario anyway; once you register, you have 30 days to send in a check. If all goes well, and you give out the album to friends, and they pay *you*, *and* they register, you could be getting a fat paycheck down the line if the people you sold the album to also spread the word.

People can fake e-mail addresses, of course.


People are more willing to pay the band, filmmaker, or the person they are buying the album from, if they see they will get a slice of the action later. The downside of all this is that the artists get less income; however, they are exchanging profits for:

  • a much better distribution channel
  • a cool way of people being connected to the artist
  • a way for people to have bragging rights on having ‘got in early’ on cool stuff
  • a way for fans to make money on their love of an artist’s work
  • a way to find out how their album is being distributed

There are plenty of holes in this process, as it stands. But I think you get the drift of where I’m going with this; we have to come up with a process (Game Theory, to the rescue…) which people feel that taking the mere 5 minutes to write a check/cash and pass some information along will benefit them down the road.

Other ideas- people who register get put in a pool so that they get special goodies (letters, new releases, preferential ticketing, a chance to be a roadie with the band).
You could also use this idea to even sell things like tickets to a show; people who sell more registered tickets get a slice of the pie; every show would be sold out, since the more people who were out there trying to sell tickets would eventually get a venue filled.

OK, I’ve given you a sketch of what my grand idea is. Let the criticism begin.





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