Web Patronage for Artists

I’m closely watching an experiment by Dennis Detwiller. He is a game designer, writer, and artist who is trying to fund his work by ransoming it to his fans. I am interested for two reasons: First, I would like to see a successful business model which pays artists but allows their work to be shared without excessive technological or copyright encumberances. Second, I’m a fan of Dennis’s work and of the style of game he writes for (Call of Cthulhu and similar pen & paper role-playing games).

The way the ransom works is this: Dennis proposes something he’d like to write and sets a price and a deadline. Then people interested in his project pledge money towards the project. If enough money is pledged before the deadline, Dennis is paid and proceeds with his writing1. Once he’s done, he releases his work for free to the world (in digital form). It can then be copied freely by anyone for non-commercial use2. If the ransom is not met, no-one pays any money (a third-party system collects pledges and returns the money if the ransom fails).

The economics are very attractive. A discussion on his blog compares the expense of paying an author and publishing a book – at a cost of about $30,000 – with the $750 Dennis asked for another piece of work he released this way. Imagine the benefits: Artists and writers would be much more free to direct their own work. Meanwhile, the world would benefit from creative work which, while not economic at, say, $30,000 is economic at $2,000. That $28,000 difference really is money saved, so there’s money left over to pay for more work by creative types.

Dennis is in a good position: while the audience (it’s not a market) he is addressing is small (Call of Cthulhu role-playing gamers), it is dedicated, and his past work on some of the best books ever published for a role-playing game has earned him a strong reputation3. A small community is probably a good thing, because the members of the community know if they don’t participate there aren’t that many people who will. Furthermore, he is extending his previous work; since no-one else has the rights to it, the audience is essentially captive.

I think the sense of participation is a key dynamic. Peer-to-peer networks like Napster have shown clearly that people like to share. Knowing that I am, in a sense, sharing when I give my $10 only increases my incentive. If this model is to succeed, I think it needs to build on that, perhaps by mentioning patrons by name (perhaps once they have donated a certain overall sum) so they can take pride in their participation.

I recently had a discussion with someone about open source and the economics of abundance. She suggested that although open source programmers give their work away, this increases their reputation. They are then able to trade on that reputation in order to increase their earning potential. In other words, behind the sharing there is often an economic motive.

She has a good point, but I would turn the argument around: reputation and status are at the root of much economic behavior, from fancy cars to big houses and nice clothes. It doesn’t seem so fanciful for our society to shift some of that spending from consumption to patronage, adapting the historical model applied to classical music and Renaissance art. (It is easy to be cynical: conspicuous consumption is unattractive, and conspicuous patronage could be the same. But the act of generosity could just as easily turn into true generosity, saving pollution and resources regardless.)

After pledging my $10, I was thrilled to see Dennis’s latest effort succeed. Even that measly sum gave me a feeling of responsibility for the effort; I would have been sorely tempted to give more if it were necessary for success. Dennis, of course, is most deserving of all. I can barely wait to read the result.


1 This kind of system has been tried before, but this is the first time I’ve payed much attention – much less donated. (I seem to remember a similar attempt by Stephen King in the 1990s. In that case, there was insufficient interest and King deemed the effort a failure.)

2 This is obviously not a precise description of his copyright conditions; if you’re interested, check out his site.

3 He was one of the designers responsible for the famous Delta Green supplement by Pagan Publishing.