Why doesn’t this already exist?

Yesterday, I was walking in town and there was a nice guy playing a clarinet in front of North Face. I intentionally fumbled with my coins for a while so as to enjoy his music a bit. Then I paid him a tip and walked along, enjoying the clarinet as it faded behind me.

Why can’t I do that for the gigabytes of copyright violations I illegally download? (Note to RIAA lawyers: this is a hypothetical situation. No need to sue me. Thanks.)

Why doesn’t a website already exist where I can pay a tip into a tip jar?

It’s hard and annoying to rent movies. I went to my corner store, and got a grilling about residency — which is incredibly difficult to prove as a visitor in the UK. Then the DVD didn’t play right on my laptop because I reinstalled Windows XP without the special install disk from IBM, so I lost the right to play DVDs on my own machine (but this same machine runs VLC to decode Xvid movies just fine). Then I forgot to return the DVD that didn’t play right on time, so I got a fine for a DVD I never could see!

I resolved then and there to never rent a DVD again, as long as I live. I’ll just go back to what I used to (hypothetically) do, which was download pirated movies. I’d like to pay for them, but I can’t. Why can’t I? I just don’t understand why I can’t pay somone. There’s lots of people in my life I don’t want to pay, who I have to pay (hello Yorkshire Water Company, are you listening!?!). Why can’t I pay the studio when I get their content via a distribution channel they don’t even have to pay for?

In my dream world, here’s how it works:

Someone sets up a website called OldBatteredHat.com. There’s a form on the front page, that says, “your paypal name? how much? URL of the content? tip!”. The URLs have to be from a small list of sources the site operator wants to trust as catalogs of copyrighted content. I’d make it IMDB for movies, FreeDB for music, and Registered Commons for Creative Commons stuff. You click on “pay by paypal”. If your paypal account is not linked to a bank account, it says, “warning, you’re stupid and will be paying some of your tip to Visa instead of to the artist. Continue?” Then the payment goes through. You get a receipt with a “tip transaction number”. There’s lots of scary leagalese that says that you are making a gift to the website operator, and that they don’t have any responsibility if the money never gets to the right place, but that they will try to check claimants well, but no promises.

The website operator has a nightly job harvesting all the tip money and rolling it into a paypal money market account. It also posts a full accounting, publicly, of the transactions for the day, week, month. It updates the “top grossing” web page, or whatever other fascinating stats he wants to post. Because he’d be committed to running the site with maximum transparency in order to earn and maintain trust, anyone could calculate the stats that he doesn’t bother to list.

There is a UI for content owners to come collect their tips. They have to submit a PDF’d scan of their declaration binding their copyright ownership to their paypal name. The website admin reads the PDF and decides if it’s valid for the given work and if so, posts it in the system with an expiration date. The content owner is able to collect tips as often as they want into their paypal account (they will discover that they have to link it, or else they pay huge fees to get paypal to send them a check). Like everything else about the system, this is radically transparent: the PDF declaration is linked with the outbound transactions, so that tippers can see who’s coming to pick up the money they left.

As the site gets more popular the load of reviewing the declarations and investigating if they are real or fake will be unbearable for the operator, and he’ll put in place a crowd-sourcing model, where people vote up correct declarations an vote down false ones. The operator then needs only check the top declarations to see if he’s willing to put his credibility on the line by approving them for making withdrawals.

The operator of the website does this out of the goodness of his heart, though he also takes tips if they come for him. He also earns interest on the tips waiting to be collected by the copyright owner. Finally, he has the right to collect tips that have been waiting for a content owner to show up for too long — and because of his radical transparency, everyone can see which tips are about to get claimed by the operator. Tippers cannot be refunded (didn’t you read the scary disclaimer, moron?). But if they are really up in arms about their tip being claimed by the operator, they should just contact the copyright holder and make sure the copyright owner comes and collected the tip. That’s their only recourse, and it’s good enough.

Whoever does this first will eventually get sued. He’ll post a notice saying he is afraid he’ll lose his house, it will all be very dramatic, and people will contribute to his legal defense, etc, etc, etc. These stories all follow the same stupid story arc. In the end, he will in fact lose his house, and he’ll be bitter and not try again, but someone else will. They too will get sued, and after a few more cycles, there will be one or two trusted tip-jar websites that stay up and don’t get sued. And the world will be a better place.

If you take this idea and are one of the guys who get sued and loses his house, sorry. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you take this idea and it takes off, please just send me a bottle of scotch. Thanks.

Update: I actually got around to doing my research on this, and I discovered a Y-combinator startup named TipJoy. Nifty. Give me a tip: