Unglue.It — a service to crowdsource book licensing fees — launches

You could say “this is a service to watch” but that would be missing the point. Yesterday the ‘Unglue.It‘ service launched as a way to crowdsource the funding of a fee to authors to release their own works under a Creative Commons license.


Unglue.It's launch announcement

At its heart, it is an experiment to see if authors can raise the funds they think are appropriate to allow readers to make unlimited digital copies of their works. It is an alternative to the existing model where single users pay individual licensing fees to download books that are encumbered by forms of digital rights management (DRM).

This is new model that doesn’t have an equivalent in the analog, print world or the existing digital, ebook world. In the analog world, the right of first sale reigns supreme; as a purchaser of the book, you have the right to do just about anything you want with that copy: you can give it to a friend, you can sell it at a garage sale, you can donate it to a library. Since it only exists as a physical object, once you give it up you no longer have access to it.

In the digital world, exact replicas are as easy as clicking and dragging a file to a flash drive, posting it to a website, or e-mailing it to friends. And you still retain the original copy. The concern for this sort of proliferation of copies is why many (most?) publishers insist on using various forms of DRM. DRM is a royal pain in the butt, though, (and publishers know it) because most forms don’t allow you to convert a file to be read across various readers (e.g. from Kindle to Nook). And you don’t really “own” the file; the DRM software “phones home” resulting in cases where files are removed from devices and files that are permanently locked because “home” has shut down.

Enter the Unglue.It model. Rights holders can set a price that, when reached, they promise to release a digital version of the work that is unencumbered by DRM under a Creative Commons License. (The worldwide non-commercial, no-derivatives license is the default.) Readers that want to see that happen pledge an amount that they choose towards the campaign. If the accumulated pledges reach the price by the campaign deadline, readers’ credit cards are charged, the author receives their money (minus a commission fee to the Unglue.It service), and posts the ebook somewhere for anyone to download and read. Rights holders can also offer incentive premiums, such as signed posters from cover illustrators, virtual author visits, and opportunities to interact with the author as they create a new work. If the amount isn’t reached by the deadline, the campaign fails — no one’s credit card is charged and the book isn’t released.

The economics of this are fascinating. Publishers will let titles go out-of-print when they think the market for new copies reaches a point where maintaining the inventory is no longer cost effective. In some cases, print-on-demand from devices like the Espresso Book Machine have filled that void for single copies, but no one is really sure what the value of a work is worth as time marches on. The Unglue.It model enables us to see what the value for some of these works really are after their initial publication by creating a market for wholesale, after-first-run, unlimited copy licenses. It will be interesting to see how these first few campaigns go and how the market settles out.

The book I'm supporting to unglue.

So I’m into this experiment. I have pledged to unglue Riverwatch by Joseph Nassise. The author has put up a page describing his own reasoning for being a part of the inaugural Unglue.It campaigns:

The Unglue.it funding process serves two very important ends – it helps writers and content providers like myself get paid for the work we produce while at the same time making that work freely available to readers all over the world. No one else, anywhere, is doing anything like this and I couldn’t be more excited about being a part of this ground-breaking launch.

So, rather than to be “something to watch”, go ahead and register at Unglue.It, participate in one of the campaigns or add books to your wish list to encourage other rights holders to join, and see where this new model takes us.

(This post was updated on 24-Jun-2014.)