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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