Unglue.it is a new website that launched on Thursday with a unique proposition: it wants people to come together and pay copyright holders to release free editions of their work.
It's not as weird as it sounds. If you read a joke on Twitter that makes you laugh, you might retweet it. If you see a photo that you like on Facebook, you might share it on your wall. If there's a great YouTube video you want all your friends to watch, you'll send them a link.
But if you want to share an e-book that you've bought, you can't do so freely, without breaking the law. Just as with the vast majority of music and movies, which are covered by standard copyright licenses, we can't do the one thing that the web lets us do to other information: share it for free.
There are good reasons why copyright exists and is enforced - publishers and authors need to be paid if they are going to make their livings from creativity. Authors are rarely pleased to hear that their work has been copied and shared illegally. Copyright exists to protect and encourage content creators.
However, copyright is also an imprecise and cumbersome law whose basic principles were formed in a pre-digital age, and whose legal standing is fiercely protected by giant corporations whose primary interest is in protecting their right to make money, and prevent consumers from sharing their content.
Since 2001, Creative Commons licences have been created to try and redress some of the more outdated aspects of copyright law. These are adapted versions of copyright for content creators, which encourage the sharing of content with fewer restrictions than those of traditional copyright. A few authors, most prominently the cult sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, have utilized these to help encourage the spread of their work. But while Doctorow very publicly offers his digital editions for free, few others are willing to take such drastic measures.
Enter Unglue.it, a new service that attempts to please both copyright holders and digital evangelists. Its asks its users to suggest and vote on existing published works that they would like to see "unglued." The company then works with copyright holders - be they publishers or authors - to decide on a fair level of compensation in order to create a completely free and open ebook edition. The crowd then pledges money towards that amount.
Special offers are made available to pledgers of different amounts. For $25, for instance, your name will be included in the acknowledgements section of the unglued edition of the book "Riverwatch" by popular fantasy author Joseph Nassise, originally published in 2002. $100 gets you a profile and a web address included in the e-book. $150 gets a Skype chat with the author for your library or reading group, while for $500 you get to watch the author writing his next book and see his early drafts, and $1,500 will lead to a one-day writing seminar with the author.
If the concept sounds familiar, that's because it's modeled on the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter. If the $25,000 that author Nassise, who in this case is the copyright holder, has asked for is raised within the deadline of 40 days, then a free e-book edition of the book will be released by Unglue.it.
This edition can be shared, owned, read on all e-reading devices, acquired for free by libraries, and distributed without restriction around the world, including in territories where the book was never released.
If, however, the total isn't reached by the deadline, nobody who has pledged has to pay any money, and the book remains "glued."
Even if the campaign is successful, the copyright holder is not handing over all rights to Unglue.it. Copyright holders can still sell print and e-book editions, sell movie and translation rights, and so on. Unglue.it is merely granted a non-exclusive license to produce and distribute a free e-book edition of the book.
It's a very original take on the thorny issue of digital rights management and copyright. Everyone wants their work to be shared and talked about but they also want to be paid for their efforts. This website suggests a new way of getting both.
Others in Unglue.it's first series of campaigns includes an academic work called "Oral Literature in Africa", first published by Oxford University Press in 1970, now out of print - and never made available in Africa itself; a long-out-of-print award-winning novel about a lesbian growing up in a Creole family in Los Angeles; an autobiographical novel for fifth graders about taking sixth grade in 1963, and the first in a 'learn to read' series for young children.
Books currently on their list of potential future titles include "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "To Kill A Mocking Bird" and "A Brief History of Time."
The Unglue.it service is a creation of Gluejar, Inc, whose tagline is "give e-books to the world." Gluejar's team includes a technologist, a literary agent and a librarian.
Whether or not it becomes a success will depend entirely on how popular the site becomes. None of the authors featured in its first list of campaigns are huge names; at the time of writing, one of the books had reached 29% of its goal; the others' percentages were still in single digits. However, there's plenty of time to go in several of the campaigns - two of them last more than 100 days - and this is only their first in a series of future Unglue lists.
Successful or not, it's a fascinating experiment. We'll be eagerly following what happens next. As Kickstarter has already proven, crowdfunding brings huge potential for original revenue streams for authors of all levels and genres. Ungluing previous works, either those now out of print, or classic books which deserve to be distributed more widely and for free, could just be what publishing needs to work around the cumbersome and clumsy nature of copyright in the digital age.
People want to share books that they love. It's currently only the technology that's holding them back.