Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Libraries Not Dead Yet

My summary for 2010 was titled "Libraries are still screwed". And then in 2011, the ebook wars broke out. It was like "Attack of the Clones". Despite the collapse of the Border worlds in the face of the trade federation's robot armies, the Jedi Knights of the Reading Republic seemed to have the situation in hand. But when you see Senator Padmé Amidala, Representative of the people of Naboo, clasp Anakin's cold metallic mechno-hand, thinking they could live happily ever after, everyone in the theater is thinking "she is sooooo screwed."

It was September of 2011 that Amazon made a play for the affections of the library world, making a deal with Overdrive to make Kindles compatible with ebooks sold to libraries.  Somehow the library world was so flattered by the attention of this youthful, rebellious suitor that it failed to see the dark side of the force. Just two months later, Amazon introduced the Kindle Lending Library, demonstrating the too-inviting vitality of the lending business model for ebooks.  All of a sudden, getting an ebook from a library involved paying a tribute of personal information. People started wondering why we still needed libraries when Amazon would lend us books and Google was giving us everything else.

A more appropriate cinematic analogy for the library world in 2012 was Revenge of the Sith. The publisher trade federation, having thrown in with the Dark Lord of Cupertino, began to secede from the reading republic. Then it was Penguin, expressing anger over Amazon's dalliance with libraries by withdrawing from the Overdrive lending program. Random House took its turn soon after. While expressing deep love for libraries, it began to empty their pockets thrice for every ebook they would buy. Hachette piled on.

Many layers of ambiguity shrouded this conflict. Was Apple the leader of a trade federation conspiracy, or was it Amazon and the Department of Justice that had the republic's best interests at heart? Was the delegation from the senate a hopelessly naive and powerless waste of time, or did it contain the germ of a new hope?

Amazon almost crushed like a Federation transport on a clumsy Gungan, but it bounced back like a booma full of plasma.

Meanwhile, a pirate queen, E. L. James, slithered her way across the best-seller lists like a Hutt, leaving a trail of treasure for the dungeon-masters at Random.

In other corners of the internet, people were starting to speak of revolutions. From his cantina of independent writers and other odd characters, Mark Coker smashed words and landed unlikely books from worlds beyond the reach of the trade federation into the hands of everyday readers. And his quiet overtures to libraries may turn out to be seeds of a much greater rebellion.

Libraries themselves faced threats from all sides. In some cases, librarians were sacrificed before the  altar of apparent change, but most of the people saw them as bastions of hope in difficult times. Even when hundreds of thousands of website clamor for eyeballs, people still look to libraries for guidance and shelter. Though "reference" in public libraries is declining, overall library usage has actually increased. Maybe it's because so many bookstores have closed, and libraries remain a last refuge of the book lover. Maybe it's the free internet without the incessant Starbucks music. Maybe it's the author at the next table that nobody's ever heard of.

Meanwhile the flight away from printed books has slowed. I'll admit it- the last few books I've read have been books I last read in college, and I still have them. They're old friends with yellowed pages and a musty smell. Science fiction by Asimov and Niven, written decades before George Lucas ever had the nightmare of Jar Jar Binks.

And even the trade federation seemed to soften. Penguin returned to library lending with a new partner, 3M. Macmillan said that it too would begin a library lending program. And meetings with a delegation from ALA's Jedi Council seemed promising.

Jeff Bezos is not the Dark Lord and he's unlikely to issue Order 66 to his army of Kindles. The Random Penguin is not erecting an impenetrable ebook blockade around libraries. But the times ahead will see many more institutions fall into irrelevance and decay, and will see others find new and greater purposes. For 2013, we can't rely on high midi-chlorian counts or light sabers. We have to build up some new things. That Death Star isn't going away all by itself.
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Einstein's Never-Ending Copyright

Photo by Miroslav Duchacek CC-BY-SA-3.0 
In my post on Quantum Copyright, I promised, in my following post, to cover the impact of Special Relativity on Copyright. I was joking. I had no intention of putting words in Einstein's mouth about our copyright laws. How silly would that be?

Have you ever tried NOT THINKING ABOUT GIRAFFES? It's just hopeless. So here you go:

In special relativity, the passage of time depends on your frame of reference. Time is relative, and simultaneity of events can't be defined except relative to their respective reference frames.

So suppose I take a book with me on a spaceship that moves at 99.99% the speed of light relative to your reference frame. Then every day that elapses for me is about 71 days for you. In two years or so, the book goes out of copyright, and the next planet I visit, I can make copies for every sentient being I can find.

Seems a lot of trouble when I can just put it on BitTorrent.

Ah, but imagine that I'm a world-famous trillionaire author, and I'm worried about the day when my best-selling novel goes out of copyright, and everyone can just rip me off? All I have to do is buy myself a spaceship and go for a vacation. Since my copyright won't expire till 70 years after my death, my hypervelocity excursion will dilate my copyright term for a long, long time. When I get back a year from now (in my reference frame), 71 years will have elapsed on earth, and with the royalties I'll have earned (plus interest) I can probably acquire every other book on the planet. And both houses of Congress. I won't have aged much, so I'll just go on another interstellar jaunt. Rinse and repeat.

Start saving up, Jo Rowling.

For the rest of us, the bright side of this is that we can be pretty sure that copyright law will get be updated at least before interstellar drives are perfected.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Heisenberg's Uncertain Copyright

If you participate in LinkedIn, you've been recently deluged with requests to endorse the skills of people in your network. I decided to have some fun with that, and listed "Quantum Copyright" as one of my skills. To cement my claim to be the world's foremost expert in quantum copyright, I decided to examine the microscopic question of where copies occur. The closer you look, the more uncertain the location of the copying becomes!

It turns out that where a copy is made has consequences. Consider Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. A recent LibraryCity blog post by David Rothman suggested that Bill Gates should use a tiny bit of his fortune to buy out the remaining copyright of Gatsby, supposedly one of Gates' favorites. On, 70 ungluers share the sentiment that The Great Gatsby should join Huckleberry Finn as a great American novel that belongs to all of us in the public commons.

Funny thing is, The Great Gatsby already belongs to every Australian, in the sense that Australians have the right to read and copy it for free without anybody's permission. In the US, it belongs to the CBS Corporation, and if you want to read it on Kindle, it'll cost you $7.80.

If you copy Gatsby in Australia, no problem, it's cool, because Gatsby has entered the public domain. There's an excellent version available from Project Gutenberg Australia. If you do it in the US without permission from CBS, it constitutes copyright infringement and is punishable with jail time and statutory damages up to $150,000 per incidence of infringement. So it really matters where the copying occurs.
click to beam

But we live in an era where books can be transported from one location to another without one of those Star Trek machines which turn goofy aliens and crewmen into particle beams. It's no longer obvious where copying occurs.

Suppose you have a book sitting on a computer in Australia. The computer breaks the book into thousands of UDP packets and sends them into the Internet. Copying can't have occurred yet, because the packets aren't fixed in any form. For copyright purposes,
“Copies” are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term “copies” includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed.
Now suppose the packets are reassembled on my hard drive in New Jersey. A copy of "The Great Gatsby" has materialized. Has a copyright been infringed? If I was in Australia and the source of the packets was in the US, would the answer be different?

click to beam

I don't know the answer; I am not a lawyer. But I'm an engineer and I can read and I understand the communication processes that have occurred in the book transporter. I'm pretty sure that copying has occurred, and that part of the copying process occurs in a location where no copyright attaches to The Great Gatsby.

Maybe it doesn't even matter where the copying occurs. Maybe it depends on who's in control of the copying. In the age of quantum copyright, action at a distance is not at all a problem. Here's what US Copyright law says:
The owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize ... to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
You could read that as saying only that nobody other than the copyright owner and subject to the jurisdiction of the statute is allowed to reproduce the copyrighted work regardless of where reproduction occurs. So if the person doing the copying is in Australia, maybe it doesn't matter where the copying actually occurs.

So we have 8 different quantum copyright location scenarios; 6 have uncertainty as to the fact of infringement:
  1. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in US. (US law controls!)
  2. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in Australia. (Australia law controls!)
  3. Person copying and copy source in US, copy destination in Australia.
  4. Person copying and copy source in Australia, copy destination in US.
  5. Person copying and copy destination in US, copy source in Australia.
  6. Person copying and copy destination in Australia, copy source in US.
  7. Person copying in US, copy source and copy destination in Australia.
  8. Person copying in Australia, copy source and copy destination in US.
You could also be a cynic and say the only thing that matters is where the judge is sitting. But really, this whole situation with territorial copyright variation is ludicrous and prehistoric and we really should be spending our time and money curing malaria instead.

Next week: copyright and special relativity. In what frame of reference do copyright terms exist?


Monday, November 26, 2012

Copyrighting the Number 42: a Stunt

The funny thing about licensing digital files is that they're just numbers. Really big numbers. So when you buy a song from iTunes, you're buying the right to use a particular number for your personal enjoyment. When you buy an ebook from Amazon, what you're really buying is the right to use another number on your Kindle or on one your Kindle Apps.

Before you get all information-wants-to-be-free on me, you need to realize that really big numbers are so profoundly outside of our experience that our intuitions about them fail. For example, Oral Literature in Africa, the ebook that 259 supporters helped to "Unglue" (i.e. make it free to the world) is a binary number 21,422,526 digits long. That's a trillion trillion...(775,304 more trillion's)...trillion trillion. If every particle in the universe contained another entire universe, and each of those universes contained an entire universe, and so on, you'd need to recurse down through 9,691 universes before you'd need a number as big as the Kindle version of Oral Literature in Africa. (Go ahead and download it, it's free!).

Imagining the number corresponding to a typical ebook is even harder than understanding digital copyright, so the idea that you can copyright and get exclusive rights to a universe or two of the more creative numbers doesn't seem completely weird by comparison. But what about a smaller number?

Consider a tweet- 140 characters. That's a number at most 2240 bits long, and it seems pretty clear that a single tweet can be considered a creative effort. It's still a very big number. We'd still need to recurse through every particle in the universe about 12 universes deep to get that big a number.

So what about a number small enough that we can almost wrap our brains around it? Can we still copyright it? The string "Harry Potter", expressed as 7 bit ascii, is only 84 bits long. I can write that number in decimal: 10,995,909,510,979,633,909,936,882. Or about 11 trillion trillion. And yes, Jo Rowling has that number trademarked on its own and copyrighted as parts of much larger numbers.

Well not really. That number is an idea, and ideas can't be copyrighted or trademarked. It's fixed expressions of ideas that can be copyrighted. So, the number, together with the ascii character table, flipped onto electron spins on your hard drive, can be an expression of "Harry Potter" which is arguably copyrightable as part of a creative work.

Get 42, the ebook, NOW.
So how far can we take this? Can I copyright the number 42? Sure I can. I just have to express it in a fixed form, in a creative way. And so I present, for your approval, my new ebook, Forty Two, now available for Kindle and other ereaders and downloadable from Github.

You may argue that 42 has made appearances in other ebooks, most notably in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You can get the Wikipedia article about the number 42 as an epub file. These are books about the number. My ebook (spoiler alert!) is the first ebook ever whose complete text is the number 42. Of course there's a cover, front matter, metadata, a table of contents and a dedication. There's even an index. You need these things to make it a properly expressed ebook.

I don't what to be a hog, I want to share the number 42 as book with others. That's why I've applied a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license to this book. You can distribute it for free, without my permission. You can print it and sell it. I invite anyone and everyone to create derivative works. For example, I've sure that among the 17,472,032 bits used to express 42 an an ebook, there are creative bits to flip. And no, flipping the bit that makes 42 into 41 doesn't count as a creative contribution, so I own that one too! But go ahead, experiment, you can fork it on Github.

But woe unto those who try to distribute 42, the ebook, on platforms that use restrictive digital rights management. That would be a violation of the terms of the Creative Commons License, and I could sue you for a lot of money. As you probably know, the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.


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Monday, November 5, 2012

Sandy's Power in Photos

Yesterday, two PSE&G workers came around to survey the damage remaining. They said that the devastation they're seeing in our area is "amazing", and they had no idea when the repair crews would get to our relatively small outage (13 houses, about a third of the block). And they don't have power at their homes, either.

My trip to Vancouver was washed out and I hope to reschedule. The rest of the team is based elsewhere and has been mostly making do without me.

Here are some photos I took in Montclair, New Jersey, on Tuesday, the day after Sandy.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Library Connections to Open Access eBooks

Power refugees at Montclair Public Library
Hurricane Sandy came through the other night and took away power for 90% of my New Jersey town. The one thing we miss, the one thing we ache for, is the connectedness we get from our devices. We're fine as long as we can keep our cell phones charged.

During my month-long tour telling people about, I've been challenging librarians to start thinking of themselves as connectors, not collectors. In an era of information abundance, library systems and processes that focus on managing an inventory of scarce resources are becoming less useful. The ability to connect a library user to the right information is becoming correspondingly more important.

Here's a crime scene we need to eradicate. A student comes into the library with a device, and asks for Moby Dick. It's been assigned reading, so all the print copies are checked out. Does the library have it as an ebook? Too often, there's no Moby Dick ebook listed in the library's catalog. The library depends on a commercial service to serve ebooks to its users, but the annotated ebook of Moby Dick that the library has licensed is checked-out. "Sorry, we don't have it" the student is told.

This should NEVER happen. Melville's Moby Dick: or The Whale belongs to all of us. Project Gutenberg has an excellent version, in formats that work on just about any device. But because it's free, no one has a monetary incentive to make that connection.

The barriers that libraries have put in place that prevent them from making use of open-access ebooks are mostly not intentional, but it will take some work to make them go away; it's something I've been working on since  the September release of the unglued edition of Oral Literature in Africa. I've been talking to the library automation and ebook platform vendors, who I know from my years in the library technology business. Without exception, the people I've talked to are enthusiastic about supporting unglued and other open-access ebooks, but there are lots of barriers. Their systems have been hard-wired to assume that library ebooks will always have digital rights management, or can only be used one user at a time. These restrictions are incompatible with the Creative Commons license we're using for unglued ebooks.

There's not much awareness of the no-DRM provisions of Creative Commons licenses, but it's there, in section 4(a):
When You Distribute or Publicly Perform the Work, You may not impose any effective technological measures on the Work that restrict the ability of a recipient of the Work from You to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License. 
This clause also serves as a barrier to commercial use by people other than the rights holder, even for the licenses that allow commercial use. For example, the Kindle store automatically applies DRM, so unless you have permission from the rights holder, you can't sell someone else's Creative Commons licensed ebook in the Kindle store.

It will take some time and a lot of work, but eventually the library barriers to Open Access ebooks will fall. But until then libraries need to ask their vendors to give these changes a high priority. Libraries that are investigating new systems for ebook distribution need to add requirements in their RFPs for serving open access ebooks along side print and pretend-its-print books.

Hurricane Roll - by Tony
There are also barriers barriers preventing libraries from using these resources that are created by libraries themselves. Libraries have many processes and workflows surrounding resource acquisition, circulation, and evaluation that overlook the opportunity to serve users with free resources. While academic libraries have been thinking about ways to support open-access academic journals for years now, books are different. Book acquisition is often funded through approval plans and selection committees that don't consider the availability of free resources, no matter their quality. And if a library measures its performance using circulation numbers which don't include connections to free resources, then how often will then resources be supported?

Connections can occur in many ways. Today, I'm connected my laptop power at the library along with more than 254 other refugees deprived of power and internet by Sandy. I know it's more than 254 because my laptop couldn't get an IP address on the WiFi. So I went to the sushi bar/cafe down the street, connected to the wifi, and ordered a "Hurricane Roll". And clicked "publish".

Wednesday, October 17, 2012



MIT Press revised the Copyright page for the ebook version. I've scraped it for you:

© 2012 The MIT Press. All rights reserved. Subject to the Creative Commons licenses noted below, no part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or displayed by any electronic or mechanical means without permission from The MIT Press or as permitted by law.

This book incorporates certain materials previously published under a CC-BY license and copyright in those underlying materials is owned by SPARC.

Effective June 15, 2013, this book will itself be subject to a CC-BY-NC license.

For information about special quantity discounts, please email

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Suber, Peter.
Open access / Peter Suber.
   p. cm. — (MIT Press essential knowledge)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-262-51763-8 (pbk.: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-262-30098-8 (retail e-book)
1. Open access publishing. I. Title.
Z286.O63S83 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I have a conjecture: virtuality generates actuality. The more we work over the internet the more we have to go and meet each other In Real Life, even if that means going halfway around the world. And sometimes you end up talking with people in a way that faithfully simulates your online communities.

The team works from four different states. To do that we use a lot of web based tools. (Our latest adoption, which we just love, is Flowdock.) But we also take the time to travel and spend some face-to-face time, which is needed to nourish the parts of relationships that can wither with online-only communication. Also it's fun.

I hope the coming month is fun for me. It will be exhausting for sure.

Today I start a month of travel with a trip to Columbus, Ohio. I'll be giving a keynote speech to open the LITA National Forum.  I'll talk a bit about, but mostly I'll be talking about how we can work together to build a public sector for digital books, of which is a small component of a SYSTEM of many parts. And yes, when I say "we" I'm including you. Yes, even if "you" are googlebot.

I just looked, and the session is nominally an hour and a half. And I've honed my pitch down to a minute. So there will be lots of time to rant like a lunatic about looking into the abyss.

Saturday I get to spend 7 hours back home in New Jersey, United willing, and then it's off to Tools of Change Frankfurt, a one day meeting in advance of the Ginormous Frankfurt Book Fair. I'm on a panel discussing "mission driven publishing":
Though some might say no one is in publishing for the money, this Innovators Track panel is devoted to some of the most daring, and caring new publishing ventures we have come across. Learn why we think these startups have both the hearts, and the smarts to make a difference and do good business, when moderator Sophie Rochester leads a discussion with the founders of PubSlush, And Other Stories, and
If you want to go, you can register and enter TOCPartner20TSpeaker to get your 20% discount. And then I have a day of getting lost at the book fair. So if you're the type who goes to Frankfurt and wants to meet, let's do it! Oh and invite me to the parties which are nothing like they used to be.

When I get back, I have a leisurely week back home. And will relaunch then! Yay! Oh, and I hold down the fort for the week while my wife does her actuality thing (we both work at home and meet in airports occasionally).

Then, it's back on the plane to London for a little meeting on Open Access monographs, and a sure-to-be-a-highlight visit to Cambridge and Open Book Publishers, who helped bring you the fabulous first unglued book.

I'll have a whole half day to sleep (in my own bed!) and then I'll be on a panel at In Re Books, a conference organized by Prof. James Grimmelmann at the NYU Law School. the panel topic is "In re Rightsholders" in which we'll discuss book rights messes, and I'll argue that if it was just a mess, then it would be possible to clean up, and it isn't. As I've said before, the ebook transition is not a little storm you clean up after, it's climate change that washes whole countries away.

This post goes on for quite a bit longer, I hope I do the same.

On  November 1, I'm a speaker at Open UBC, a two day event at University of British Columbia celebrating and exploring various aspects of Open Access.
Open UBC is held in conjunction with the International Open Access Week, which encourages the academic community to come together to share and learn about open scholarship initiatives locally and worldwide. Open UBC showcases two days of diverse events highlighting areas of open scholarship that UBC’s researchers, faculty, students and staff participate in as well as guests from the global community. These events include discussion forums, lectures, seminars, workshops, and symposia on topical and timely issues from every discipline. All of these events are FREE and open to the public, students, faculty, staff and schools.
I'll reprise the good parts of my LITA presentation, if there turn out to be any.

A week later, I'll be at the Charleston Conference in South Carolina.  The topic is "Curating a New World of Publishing"
The drastic increase in publishing output has created an abundance that can be overwhelming, but this windfall of content ultimately presents an opportunity for libraries to develop deep and unique collections while preserving the intellectual works of our time. What is the role of the library as curator within this world of independently published content? Do libraries still have bibliographers with the skill sets necessary to identify high‐quality content without the aid of a well‐known imprint on the book spine? What technological approaches might be employed to make the process of identifying important or just plain interesting content scalable?
I hate the word "curation". Makes me want to make crude puns with it.

Charleston is always a fun conference, but not this time! It's off to Saratoga Springs, New York with me, for the New York Library Association Meeting. It's me and Jordan Vincent (formerly a whiz at Douglas County Libraries, now at Bibliotheca, a library vendor new to the ebook business) talking about "What's Next eBooks Chapter and Verse". By then I'm guessing I'll be all fire and brimstone, but you never know.

And that's it. If you see me someplace, say hello. This code: irleality will get you an official sticker.

And the Phillies are guaranteed not to lose a single playoff game the whole time.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

CC BY and the Truth-Printing Business

Why are dollars worth anything? Why are digits on a bank statement worth anything? When my server tells our payments provider to move bits from your credit card, why does it matter to you?

In practical terms, dollars are valuable because other people will give you stuff or do things for you in exchange. Or at least they will if you can convince their bank to change the digits in their bank account. Their bank has to trust your bank which has to trust you. It all works because we all trust it will work. And why do we trust that it will work?

There are governments and laws to back them up. Why do we trust the government and laws? In practical terms we trust the government and laws because... well... they have ballot boxes. And judges and police forces. But mostly we trust the government and legal system because it sort of works and is often not abusive. At the bottom, it's because there's this web of trust which collectively holds everything together. Until of course, it doesn't. Because there isn't a bottom, it's turtles all the way down.

If you haven't heard of Bitcoin, let me give you this non-technical summary. Bitcoin is a recent implementation of the idea that money based on a web of cryptographically secured assertions is sounder than money based on a web of governmentally secured assertions. If as many people believed in cryptography as believe in astrology, we'd be using Bitcoin today.

The magic result is that an entity that gets society to trust its currency can then print money.

When the currency is truth rather than coin, judges and guns don't work so well. Traditional hierarchical authority systems are breaking down. What's replacing them is open authority systems. Systems such as wikipedia which allow everyone to participate in the construction of truth, not by being correct, but by being fixable. And to the frustration of many, Wikipedia delegates all its authority to things that are "citeable".

So how do you get to be an authority that Wikipedia believes? The two criteria that seem to matter most are
  1. Openness. If wikipedians can't read you, you don't exist. 
  2. Authority. People need to believe you. 
If you notice the circularity here, you'll see that printing truth and printing money are not so different.

As usual, I take a long time getting around to my point. Which is this: If you want to be in the business of printing truth, the best license to choose for your business is the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). For now. And if you're printing science, medicine, technology or even philosophy, I really hope you want to print truth.

The Creative Commons part speaks to the need to be open. In the age of the internet, you can't print truth and keep it secret. No one will believe you.

The Attribution part builds your most valuable asset, your reputation. No one believes anonymous assertions.

You might ask about other options, for example, Non-Commercial (NC), No Derivatives(ND), Share-Alike (SA).

I've written about reasons to use NC and ND. Those reasons don't apply to the truth-printing business.

Can you imagine if your dollar bill said "This note is legal tender for all non-commercial debts public or private". That would be silly. The whole point of money is that it doesn't change depending on its use. And its the same with truth. There ain't no such thing as non-commercial truth. You can't control the uses of the truth you print. You can't even demand that people who consume your truth share that truth the same as you do..

A lot of people get confused about using no-derivative licenses. They think that if you print that the sky is blue, your credibility will be hurt if someone reprints a derivative of your truth and says the sky is black. But that's exactly what the attribution requirements prevent. But more than that, if you print your truth as chiseled in stone, then no one will believe it in a few years or so, because we all know that the truth hasn't been chiseled in stone for at least two thousand years. Nowadays we can make cryptographically strong proofs that assertions aren't being fiddled with and were made by the entities they're attributed. We can track the trail of assertions through history. And the provider of that chain of provenance is you, the truth printing proprietor. The longer the trail of conflicting assertions, the more crucial your authority as a truth printer becomes.

The problem of turning the currency of truth into harder currency is left as an exercise for the reader.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stripe, Balanced, WePay for Payments: Not big enough to #fail

When Amazon Payments first told us they wouldn't allow our crowd-funding business to continue using their system, we thought it was a phishing attack. That's because a robot sent it, and what does a robot know? But it turned out they were serious, they had to cut us off, because what if we destroyed civilization as we know it? Would they be on the hook for it?

Having dealt with Amazon Payments and Paypal, I dreaded what we'd have to go through. But now, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about the online payments industry, I feel that getting booted by Amazon was the best thing that could have happened to There's a new generation of payments companies out there, and when the big payments companies have their Lehmann-Bear-Stearns-Brothers moment, you'll be happy if you escaped in time.

To understand what makes payments companies tick, you have to understand something about the risks they take on, and the ways they try to mitigate risk. For a merchant, taking a credit card means you don't have to worry about whether someone's credit is good. For a consumer, paying with a credit card means you have some recourse if a merchant tries to cheat you. Credit card fraud is probably older than credit cards, and credit card companies have decades of experience detecting fraud and reducing its cost.

Internet commerce introduced entirely new categories of risks, and conventional payments providers were not eager to change. To address the needs of a new era, a number of payments companies came into existence, most notably, Paypal. As Paypal took off, companies like Amazon, Apple, Ebay and Google did not stand idly by.

But anyone who's used Paypal, Amazon Payments, or Google Wallet recently can't help but notice that these services have calcified. Even worse is that they've metastasized as impersonal, unresponsive machines. In the payments biz, calcification has advantages. Consumers have learned to trust these companies and their brands, and the companies have in turn done their best to turn into rocks of calcite stability.

But if you want to change the world with your fantastic start-up, you're screwed. If you're doing something new, the big guys can't evaluate your risk profile. Because they're machines. For changing the world, you need people, or at least cyborgs. You need high-powered big-data risk analysis supplementing the judgments of seriously smart people. And over the last month, I've found some of this at three different companies.

First, let me tell you about some companies we didn't pursue. Dwolla is really interesting, but we thought it would be hard to sell Dwolla and its requirement for direct bank account access to our core demographic. If our users were high-involvement, high frequency users, we might feel differently. Similarly, the marketing barriers to using things like bitcoin are prohibitive at this time. Mobile payments solutions such as Square aren't so relevant for our application.

Another company we were interested in was Braintree Payments. We reached out to them, but they told us that three weeks prior to our request, their banking networks had told them to stop supporting crowdfunding businesses.

So we looked at WePay, Balanced, and Stripe. Three breaths of fresh air.

Of these three the company that most closely replicates the Amazon/Paypal model is WePay. Like Amazon/Paypal, WePay allows users to create a WePay account. As WePay becomes more and more accepted, consumers who might be hesitant to give credit card info to an unfamiliar service like will recognize the WePay brand and grant access to their WePay account, if they already have one, via OAuth. If the user doesn't have a WePay account, the the marketplace can create one on their behalf. When everything works, friction in the transaction drops dramatically.

Wepay's API (which was not available when we were looking for a payments provider a year ago) allows all the key functions Gluejar would need to build a crowdfunding application. These include conditional and delayed payments. For example, WePay is the payments provider for GoFundMe. The biggest downside for us is that Wepay is quite specific about only allowing payees who are US citizens. Still, we were able to identify a work-around for our non-US rights-holders. Balanced and Stripe had similar issues and work arounds.

Balanced, the smallest of the three companies we talked to, is in many ways the most exciting. They're focused on providing solutions specifically tailored to markets. They've baked the concepts of multiple buyers and multiple sellers into their well-documented API, and offer features such as the ability to escrow payments into the marketplace account. If you so much as browse their website you'll be given an API key and be offered the chance to do a test transaction.

Markets present rather different risk profiles to a payment provider than do simple merchants. The diversity of participants and flow of payments makes it harder to detect fraud. But if you have smart, experienced people involved, the risks can be assessed and mitigated. Fraud detection algorithms can be optimized for markets. The possibilities of markets enabled by the internet are unfathomable. For example, last week I learned of a company, VoiceBunny, that has built a marketplace for voice talents. Crowdvoicing! You feed some text into an API and soon, someone with a great voice will speak it for you. They're using Paypal now, but they would be smart to look at Balanced.

GitTip IS using balanced, after a fiasco with FeeFighters and finding their business model incompatible with Stripe's underwriters. Gittip's founder, Chad Whitacre, had to "understand and mitigate the risks of running a marketplace", and Balanced is helping him do that.

Stripe was the most "boring" payments company we looked at. I use the word "boring" with much admiration, because they're focusing on the relatively boring old problem of enabling internet merchants to take credit cards and just doing a better job of it. On the implementation side, they've succeeded brilliantly, with an API and developer support that just makes you want to throw your Paypal code into the trash and drink some good bubbly to celebrate its demise.

The folks at Stripe took the time to understand the issues of payment risk inherent in our business model, and what we're doing to address it. To be able to use Stripe for our marketplace, we would need to take some responsibility for delivering the Creative-Commons Licensed eBooks that our crowd is funding. It means that we can't work like Kickstarter, which disclaims any and all responsibility for completion and delivery of the projects on its website. Since that quality control and delivery assurance is a big part of the extra value we provide over Kickstarter, Stripe is a viable option for us. As are Balanced and WePay.

In deciding among these three great companies, the questions we asked ourselves were more about what we want to be than anything else. Do we require the scaling characteristics of a marketplace or are we just a merchant that wants to take creditcards? Do we want a payment network or can we stand on our own? As the world of internet payments develops, which company will develop solutions aligned with our particular needs?

I'm not going to say which company we've settled on until we make sure that everything works, but I've very sure that whether it's that one or one of the others, we'll be in a much happier space than we were with Amazon or Paypal. If you are considering a switch from a payments company that is too big to care about your success, or if you are deciding on a provider for a new application, you should really look at the new companies. A healthy internet economy needs a diversity of payments providers who employ more than just algorithms, who support businesses rather than accounts.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The "I Used This" Button

I frequent-flyered off to San Francisco this weekend to surprise my Ph. D. Advisor, Jim Harris, for his 70th Birthday. I was the first of his students to graduate, and he's up to 105. On thing I learned helping to start his group was the immense value of being thrown together with a group of smart people with a variety of experience. I met members of Jim's current group, which includes a student from Gunn High School, visiting scholars from around the world, and Ph. D. students bursting with ideas.

I manufactured some business-related meetings for the trip, some of which I'll relate in a to-be-written post, but I also lucked into a hackathon for Open-Access hosted by PLoS. I spent the day with a group of smart people with a wide range of experience, including software developers, product managers, film-makers and a librarian or three.

The group I ended up working with included Greg Grossmeier from Creative Commons, Cameron Neylon from PLoS, and Ana Nelson, the developer-entrepreneur behind dexy. We were interested in counting open-access things. Counting things can be harder than you think, because you have to define the things and identify them; you need to be able to tell whether a thing is the same thing as another thing, or perhaps it's three things. Counting bananas is one thing, but have you ever tried counting ideas?

Creative Commons (CC) is interested in knowing how much its licenses are used. When an ebook edition is released (of course under Creative Commons!), how often is it used? Does a single license apply to the entire book, or can we apply different licenses to the different resources inside the book? For example, an author may want to use a CC-BY license for the text of a book, which might contain figures that are used under CC BY-ND. And the metadata should be CC0. How should these licenses be expressed?

After some discussion, we settled down to work on some specific projects. My project turned out not to be code at all, but rather a description of a scheme for measuring Creative Commons usage, i.e. the rest of this blog post.

Creative Commons has thought about ways to measure the usage of its licenses. For example, it can track the display of its license "badges", such as the one right here. Web browsers will send a referrer header that tells the image server the web page and user IP address. But there are problems. Many web sites use their own copy of the badge. In an ebook, the badge would be embedded in the ebook file. If the page is served over a secure socket, the referrer won't be set. And do you really want to tell Creative Commons about everything you're reading?

Speaking of which, have you clicked on a Facebook "Like" button this week? Was it good for you too?

Suppose there was a button on Creative Commons licensed documents that allowed the user to express their delight at the creator's enlightened choice of license. Would you click it? I call it the "I Used This" (IUT) button, but maybe you can think of a better name.

  • The IUT button would send a signal to a Creative Commons server about usage of the resource. These signals would be compiled and reported.
  • IUT button would also send attribution url.
  • Pressing the button would display an amusing animation to the user. Perhaps every button would have a different animation to avoid button fatigue.
  • The button would be at the center of an advocacy campaign for open licenses.
  • Unlike the Facebook Like button, the IUT button would respect a user's privacy. A signal would be sent only when initiated by the user, and would be optional.
  • An IUT button packaged as a javascript would work in epub, html, etc.
  • IUT signals would be evidence of the resource's status as a CC licensed work. A licensor attempting to revoke a CC license (you can't do that!) would have to overcome a verifiable usage trail.
  • Users could create accounts at CC to provide a retrospective record of the user's Use.
  • Clicking the IUT Button would put the attribution url on clipboard to ease correct citations.
  • Usage information for each resource would be public- creators could easily track the usage signals for their works.
  • We might need anti-ballot-stuffing measures if CC usage rankings become commercially important.

If efforts like are to succeed, people who appreciate the benefits of Creative Commons licensing need to stand up and be counted. We need to make it a mass movement in the minds of every lover of books, everywhere.

Sometimes you need to do more than just consume. Sometimes you need to do some SHOUTING.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I'm not mad at Amazon

Amazon seems moderately competent to me. That puts them in the top decile of large American corporations. So when Sarah Houghton, the "Librarian in Black" tweeted me "I hope you won't mind if I'm still mad at them ;)" I realized that I'm not mad at Amazon at all. A big company acting like a big company is not the sort of thing I get mad at. I've worked for one of the biggest companies in the world (at least it used to be!)  So when Amazon forces my small company to suspend crowdfunding because of its big-company traits, I find it hard to get too worked up.

But let me tell you the whole story.

Twelve years ago, my company, which was named "Openly Informatics" at the time, launched a book-linking service called "LinkBaton". We offered users the ability to link to the bookstore or library of their choice. Our value proposition for websites was that by letting users pick their favorite bookstore- Amazon or BN or whatever, they'd get more affiliate commissions. Meanwhile, we'd make money by getting good search optimization for our links. The problem with the business was that Amazon was so good at converting traffic to sales that any diversion of traffic to a non-Amazon site would reduce rather than increase a website's revenue. Still, our traffic built up, and at our peak, we were driving 200 transactions per day and getting nice sales commissions through Amazon Associates. Our peak day was September 10, 2001.

But that's another story entirely.

So we "pivoted" into library software, linking to journal articles instead of books. That turned out to be successful, and I ended up selling the business and the name, but not the company, to a big non-profit in the library space. I worked there a little over three years, met some wonderful people, and learned a whole lot.

When I left that job, I reactivated the company (now called "Gluejar") and did some odds and ends, consulting, selling some books through Amazon Marketplace, and blogging about ebooks and libraries. Amazon was happy to give Gluejar a business account.

Last year, I decided that creating a public sector for ebooks was an important thing to work on, and that crowdfunding was the way to do it. was born. The main technical uncertainty was the payment system. I hired some engineers and we compared various providers and chose PayPal, mostly because they offer better international coverage than Amazon Payments. Also we were hesitant to use Amazon because book publishers hate Amazon- they're jealous of Amazon's prowess in  e-commerce.

But Amazon Web Services is amazing. We have all our servers in the Amazon cloud.

And then we waited for PayPal to turn us on. That was January. We're still waiting. It seems PayPal has been reevaluating their stance toward crowdfunding businesses.

In April, we felt we'd waited long enough and decided to look at Amazon again. Kickstarter was seeing more and more success with Amazon Payments, so we figured they really had their act together. We already had a business account, we just had to get approved for Flexible Payment System (FPS) access. We verified our bank account, and 2 weeks later, FPS was turned on. With real money. Amazon is so awesome!

After all sorts of testing, we launched the website on May 17. One month later, our first campaign succeeded. We had supporting tweets from CoryDoctorow. And TimOreilly. And Weezer, goddammit! We carefully ran 259 payment authorizations, and real money appeared in our account. An ebook, Oral Literature in Africa, will be free to the world! Everything just worked.

Two weeks ago, I got this very phishy email:
Greetings from Amazon Payments,
Thank you for registering with Amazon Payments. We appreciate your interest in our product.
Unfortunately, at this time, we are not able to approve your request for an Amazon Payments business account based on our review of your intended use of our payments service.
As stated in our Acceptable Use Policy, the following product or services are prohibited from using Amazon Payments:
• Donations and Charitable Solicitations - includes charities and non-profit organizations without a valid 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, charitable solicitations, commercial fundraisers (including commercial co-venturers), or any activity associated with the solicitation of donations.
A member of our business team will be in contact with you to further discuss your business model and use of Amazon Payments.
We have temporarily activated your account. Please initiate a new transaction to withdraw funds into your bank account.
Account Specialist
Amazon Payments
We thought it was a phishing attack because
  1. They didn't know we'd had a business account for 3 years
  2. They said nothing about FPS
  3. The action requested was to make a withdrawal. Huh?
  4. Donations? If what we're doing is asking for donations, when we commit to deliver ebook licenses for contributions, then what is Kickstarter, which promises squat, doing??
So the next morning, I called Amazon Payments customer service. The representative confirmed that nothing had changed in our account. But there was a note from the "verification team". And it was impossible, even for her, to talk to the verification team. So she said we should reply to the phishy email, and wait for the "member of the business team" to contact us.

So I replied, and the passive-agressive robot at the other end seemed to either want a human to intervene or to nuke our account. That scared us, because the account was linked to AWS and all sorts of good things. We felt confident that when we could speak with an actual human, all the misunderstandings would melt away. And so, after a week of not hearing more, I went away for a week at the New Jersey shore.

On Tuesday afternoon, I finally got an email from a human at Amazon Payments who knew what was going on, a Senior Account Manager. We scheduled a call for Wednesday noon. (we sleep late here at the beach) He was really nice and treated me with utmost respect. I explained my company's long history with Amazon and our crowdfunding achievements to date. He explained his much shorter history with Amazon and expressed admiration for what we were doing. He then explained some of the regulatory and contractual burdens that Amazon Payments (an entity separate from Amazon) has to meet, and how everything was more complicated with crowdfunding accounts. As a trivial example, they have to verify that their payments are not going towards alcohol or firearms. He did not mention nuclear weapons or drug money laundering, but I extrapolated. And it seems that Amazon has to spend money to do all this verification. They discovered all this crap because they're doing payments for Kickstarter. And until they figure out how to make sure that Kickstarter is not funding alcohol, drugs, nuclear weapons, prostitution and credit-default swaps, they've decided not to accept any more crowdfunding accounts.

I make it sound a bit crazy, but that's the world we live in. Think about it: how would you make sure the thousand business partners of your thousand business partners aren't dealing cocaine-tipped Stinger missile futures contracts on the side? And the questions we've gotten from the Paypal people were heading in the same direction, so I'm inclined to believe Amazon Payments Guy. I think it's rather unlikely that Amazon is singling us out because we're funding free ebooks, or, as has was suggested on Twitter and Hacker News, that we threaten Amazon's Kindle business. In my dreams. (Which will come true!)

So we had to suspend our ungluing campaigns. Striking a blow against arms dealing and drug money launderers everywhere.

It would have been nice if, back in April, we had gotten a clear signal from Amazon that they weren't doing new crowdfunding businesses. Most likely, we would have gotten that signal in April if not for our 3 year old business account. I can easily imagine a meeting inside Amazon where some participants wanted to go full blast on crowdfunding and others wanted to ban it, resulting in a compromise position of no new crowdfunding "for now", but no announcement either. The crack we fell into was just collateral damage. Small companies that get shoved aside are not Amazon's problem. But no, I'm not mad about it. Did I mention how amazing AWS is?

I'm curious though. If it was me running payments at Amazon, I'd see this mess as an opportunity. If Amazon had tighter, front-to-back control of crowdfunding, it could do it better, more efficiently. If it was me running payments at Amazon, I'd set up a better-designed crowdfunding marketplace. No wait! If it was me running payments at Amazon, I would buy Kickstarter!

And based on sheer speculation, it's entirely possible that Amazon is right now trying to buy Kickstarter. In October 2009, Kickstarter said it was working to support international projects   and as of 2012, nothing has happened. Why dyaspose?

As for our relaunch, we'll be looking at companies like Wepay, Dwolla, Stripe, Balanced, Braintree and a few others. Maybe the regulatory crap is easier to deal with in a smaller company that can know its customers. I'd love to hear suggestions. We're also working on a way to decouple our market from payment providers entirely. Who knows, maybe Paypal will come to our rescue. whatever happens, we'll be back sooner than you'd think.

Until then, if you like our model for ungluing ebooks, please register on the site. Or start a nuclear reactor project on Kickstarter.

Update: Here's the followup post.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Running a Start-Up

I'm a runner. Not a fast runner- my "fast" pace is 9:20 per mile. Some days I have to push myself, particularly when it gets above 90°F. My muscles are old and stiff, and they'd rather just prop themselves in front of my armchair. Some days I don't have the will to keep going the full 5 kilometers and I stop and walk a bit. Some days I'm riled up about something and I run faster without realizing it.

I like to think while running. The blood starts flowing to my groggy brain and synapses start firing. Before that happens, I get over the complaints from my legs and feet and chest. The music from my iPod Shuffle helps a lot. Thank you for that, Steve.

And then I get to the end of my run. I drip with sweat and cool down by sweeping the oak pollen or bark or acorns off the back deck. Even after my shower, I'm still soaked.

What makes me do it? It's not like I'm training for Olympic glory, there's no coach urging me on.

Doing a start-up is like running. I often enjoy it, but just as often I have to push myself to do things I'd rather skip. Once in a while it takes your breath away, like running on a perfect day, getting to the top of a hill into a cloudless sky. Mostly though, it's fighting to keep up a trot when walking would be a lot easier.

I enjoy building things, and I like writing code. So that part of a tech start-up is not a problem. Calling people on the phone, on the other hand, is torture for me, but I do some of that because I have to. Multi-tasking is not my strong suit. Managing creative and smart people can be simultaneously a joy and a bundle of stress.

And then there's the money. Every founder has the ever-present worry about worry about running out of money, which is tempered only by the knowledge that if you don't run out of money, you'll have succeeded.

So, about money. I'm sometimes asked why is a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit. The main reason is what I just said. I like building things and technology is fun. Calling people on the phone to ask for grants- that would be a nightmare for me.

But I think it's important for a business like to be transparent about finances. So I've written a post on the blog reporting on its finances. Authors and publishers will need to be become more open about the money they expect to receive for ungluing a work, and in many cases this will be uncomfortable for them. So needs to set an example.

It's a fair amount of money I'm putting into Why do I take the risk? I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be able to make the investment, because it's an important idea that needs to be explored. But it's also like my running. What good are legs if you don't stretch them, make them work?

I'm a worrier, and there's plenty to worry about. My recent worries have surrounded things like insurance ('s "presence" in 4 states makes that not fun). And payment providers. Amazon could decide tomorrow that we're a threat to their book business and turn off our payments account. Google could decide on Wednesday that books aren't worth the trouble and shut down their book search API. On Thursday, hackers could take control of our servers and trash our database.

But you just have to keep at it. As of the end of June, the team had logged 2,222 Git commits and finished 333 Pivotal stories. We've talked to hundreds of people. We've written support email, press releases, blog posts and heartfelt opinion pieces. We're keeping at it, so there's less time to worry.

The wonderful response to has kept the entire team going strong. Yesterday, signed up its 1,800th ungluer. Most likely, we'll fall just a bit short of our goal to grow that number by 40% every month. That's a very healthy growth pace, but it's still a tiny number. To give our campaigns the exposure needed to match the earnings potential of conventional book selling, we'll need to have 10 times or even a hundred times the number of ungluers. Even at 40% per month, we'll need till the end of the year to reach 10,000 ungluers. We'll get there one way or another, but it's hard to know how long it will take. It's going to be a marathon, and I've never run one.

Every now and then I'll need to slow to a walk. If you offer me some water, I won't say no.

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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Secret Desert Meeting Report: It Was Hot

Don't think that a relative absence of blog posts means I haven't been working hard. was a first-time exhibitor at the American Library Association Annual Meeting. We talked to a lot of people. We gave out stickers. I gave a talk. I met a mermaid. Here are my observations:

  • I'll bet we talked to 200 people. And of those 200, there were about 5 who weren't excited to learn about what is doing. That's a pretty good batting average.
  • Of the 200, half said they'd heard about us or read about us somewhere. About 5 of those had actually supported one of the campaigns. And those 5 were bringing Andromeda cookies to keep her from expiring. That's hitting a lot of singles but not scoring a lot of runs. But I'm happy to report that the team survived.
  • The total attendance at ALA was around 20,000. That means we barely reached 1% of attendees. But they were a very good 1%. The number of people who have signed up to be ungluers passed 1,400. Ungluers pledged over $1500 to the campaign for Joe Nassise's Riverwatch. But Joe will make much more than that by leaving the ebook on Amazon, so it won't be our next book to unglue. We need to multiply our numbers by 10. And we will. Our 195 converts will talk to 195 more and so on. We have enough stickers.
  • The mermaid was also excited about
  • We had some discussions that will lead to amazing things. 

After the meeting was over, The team converged on an undisclosed desert location to figure out what to do next. We decided to get some sleep.

It gets hot in the desert. 100°F by noontime. But that didn't stop us from our mission. We had electronics. We had internet.  We had expense reimbursement policy to discuss. The words "Gold Lamé" were mentioned. World domination was considered inevitable, given enough time.

And speaking of a good batting average, Carlos Ruiz of the Philadelphia Phillies was named to the National League All-Star team today, and the honor has never been more deserved. Major-league catchers crouch and stand about 200 times a game, catching 90 mile-per-hour fast balls and curves that make the air hum. Or not, and then they have to block the ball with their bodies. They are routine smash targets for runners trying to score through their bodies. On top of this, they're expected to throw out runners, manage their pitchers,  and know the weaknesses of the opposing hitters. Oh, and hit occasionally. This year, Ruiz is leading the league in batting average, and to use a techniccal term, mashing.

There was a time when Ruiz was considered too old to be a prospect. He just needed some time.

Awesomeness takes its own time.