< Month of Crowdfunding
CG Author Commentary #4: "Too Much Information" >

Street Performer Protocol: As far as I can tell, Kickstarter-style crowdfunding was introduced to the world in John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier's 1998 paper "The Street Performer Protocol". When I first heard about Kickstarter I thought "finally, a site that implements the Street Performer Protocol." Except Kickstarter doesn't implement the SPP.

The SPP funds the creation of public works. "[P]eople would place donations in escrow, to be released to an author in the event that the promised work be put in the public domain." Or whatever--Creative Commons didn't exist in 1998. A Kickstarter user could choose to implement the SPP, but almost nobody does. They use Kickstarter to fund (say) a book, and then only a few people get to see the book. Or then the book goes on sale. It's cool that the book was made/reprinted, but the world would be a better place if everyone could have a copy. (I hope it's clear that I'm talking about projects with zero marginal cost like texts, not things like ice cream trucks.)

Jason Scott is the big counterexample. He's using Kickstarter to fund his documentaries, which he releases under CC licenses. It's also pretty common to use Kickstarter to fund open source software. Why don't more people do this?

The biggest obstacle to implementing the Street Performer Protocol is that most people don't know about it. But even someone who knows might not want to use it, because the SPP is susceptible to the free rider problem. Why back a project when you can wait for someone else to back it and reap the rewards?

The Rational Street Performer Protocol deals with the free rider problem, but it's an iterative protocol and it's pretty complicated. In real life, people deal with free riders by introducing scarce rewards into the Kickstarter reward tiers. A copy of the work is a very effective reward, so a project runner may rationally decide to keep copies scarce with copyright.

I'm interested in alternatives. Physical copies of music/books are intrinsically scarce, and they make a good choice for that all-important $25-$50 tier, but a lot of people (including me) would generally be happier with an electronic copy because we don't need more physical objects in our lives.

Another possibility is time-limited scarcity: offer backers early electronic access to a work that will made public later. I was really excited about time-limited scarcity back in 2008 when it was just me thinking of crackpot ways to publish my fiction, but after getting some experience with crowdfunding, I'm not so sure. You gotta wait for this stuff anyway. It's been six months since Month of Kickstarter and I'm still getting things in the mail. (Just got a huge copy of Fealty.) If I have to wait for six months anyway, why shouldn't I wait nine months and get it for free? If I'm funding the creation of a work, rather than publication of something that already exists, the wait is even longer. Is a twelve-month wait really that much better than an eighteen-month wait?

I don't have any other ideas right now, but I wanted to write this down as a starting point. I'd really like to see crowdfunding used as a way to ransom works into the commons, but it's hard enough to get your project funded without taking away one of the reward tiers.

BTW, this is another reason why board games make great crowdfunding projects. They're intrinsically scarce. You can make an unauthorized copy of a board game, but it's a huge pain, and it'll probably remain a huge pain for the next five years.

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