Subscriptions to Share: New Way to Sell Content or Help Fundraising Online

While exploring future options for AIDS Treatment News I found a flexible way to sell information or help raise funds online. While AIDS Treatment News may not use it because we want to make our information free, I'm publishing this summary to help small publications and other projects that might benefit. For the full article see the Web link below.

The Need

One of the biggest obstacles to small publications today is the difficulty of charging low prices for online content. Thousands of people now make a living selling knick-knacks on eBay because they can reach a global market through the Internet. But few writers and editors can make an independent living that way (unless they serve a high-priced, usually corporate market) -- largely because the transaction cost and inconvenience of charging any money at all will greatly reduce readership, probably by 90% or more. Even requiring free registration at a Web site can seriously reduce its use.

The world would be a better place if thousands of individuals and small organizations could make a living writing, editing, or publishing online, charging maybe 25 or 50 cents per newsletter issue, or per article downloaded. I believe the publishing industry has missed opportunities to do this, because of its obsession with preventing subscribers from sharing proprietary information. Designing systems to encourage sharing gives a very different perspective.

Subscriptions That Propagate

We will show how to sell subscriptions online with no registration at all. The publisher does not need a user name, email address, or any other contact information for subscribers. The reason is that all subscribers can break off pieces of their subscription and sell or donate them as totally new subscriptions of whatever size, without the publisher's involvement. These new subscriptions can also reproduce -- and so on to any depth. While the publisher does not need to do anything in this reselling or giving away of his or her information, the publisher does get paid for it -- and can control it, since the publisher's server keeps track of all subscriptions and handles fulfillment.

For example, the publisher can sell one large subscription to a public library, which can then give away hundreds of tiny subscriptions (access to one download, or a handful of them) for clients to use anywhere. Or an individual can buy a subscription and offer dozens of small subscription grants, worth a few dollars each, to anyone anywhere in the world who explains in two or three sentences how they will use it to support a particular cause -- bringing people together around that cause, and putting it on the table for public discussion.

Publishers do not need to contact subscribers when articles come out, since anyone can get notices and summaries through open list serves.

Less obvious consequences of Subscriptions to Share include:

  • A single subscription can give access to hundreds of different publishers -- and hundreds of different charities as well, automatically keeping tax records and printing documentation on request.

  • A subscription can sell digital tickets to fundraising or commercial events (if the event sponsor offers the service and the subscription owner allows it). These digital tickets (like the subscriptions themselves) are small codes, as short as four characters long, that can easily be written down or given over the phone, but are almost impossible to guess. At the event they are scanned or typed in. A single digital ticket can admit one person or any number, whether they arrive together or separately. If payment is through an existing subscription no financial transfer is necessary. This means that in one minute online you could make reservations and buy a single ticket for a dozen people arriving in several groups, phone the code to each group, and meet inside the theater. If someone cannot make it you can call somebody else and give them the code -- no need to resell any ticket, nor arrange to meet outside.

  • Corporations or others that want to distribute bulk copies of an article (either online or in print) can buy a license automatically through the publisher's Web site, charging their existing subscription. The server prints a permission notice to be included with the copies -- with a coded transaction number as proof of purchase of the license.

  • Subscriptions can also be pure donations for fundraising -- not giving access to articles or tickets. This means that a donor who could commit to raise, say, $100, could give the whole amount to the organization immediately, and then "sell" portions of that donation to other contributors later -- even much later. The "owner" of any portion of the donation can confirm its authenticity and amount at any time through the Web site that manages the subscription.

  • This donation system also means that people can contribute more, since they have a good chance of being able to get their money back if they ever need it in the future, by "selling" parts or all of their donation to other donors friendly both to them and to the cause. This kind of donation generates a gift economy where people give money when they have it and can get it back if they need it, keeping resources in use. Of course the organizations get the donations free and clear.

  • Using prepaid subscriptions, even small donations can easily be given throughout the world. For example, a Web page could show several faces, or dozens or hundreds of faces; you can move the pointer over a face to hear that person's appeal in their voice (and see a written translation in any of a dozen languages), click to give 50 cents or a dollar to the cause, click as often as you like or use a separate link for a large donation, and hear their thank-you. Certainly these pages will generate marketing statistics to allow successive improvement. Legal complications should be minimal, since all money changes hands through conventional means such as credit cards. This system only removes paperwork from the decision process, at the point of purchase or donation.

  • A single subscription to a subscription agency can allow payment to any number of businesses and/or charities, through prior agreements they have with the agency. Therefore owning one or a few subscriptions could enable someone to buy from many publishers, or donate to many organizations, even if they never knew of them before. (Of course the subscription owner can limit access if he or she chooses. Needless to say, the offspring of any subscription will share all its limits.)

  • This system gives readers and donors more control of publishers' or charities' agendas, by telling the organizations exactly what is purchased or donated, and when.

How It Works

The key to this system is a code we call a "chit," typically eight characters long. With eight characters (each a number or letter, not case sensitive), a publisher, charity, or subscription agency has enough combinations to issue over a million different chits (a million subscriptions) -- and yet if an intruder tries to guess, their chance of getting any correct code to use is less than a million to one. (And if they do get hold of an unauthorized code, all they can do with it is use up the value of that subscription -- which the publisher will probably replace free for the customer, since fulfillment cost is usually zero.)

Each chit gives full access to its subscription; there is no separate user name or password. A subscription may allow a certain number of article downloads from the publisher's Web site. For example, a $20 subscription might give 100 downloads (20 cents each). Subscriptions could also be denominated in currency (such as dollars or euros) instead of downloads.

The chit also gives access to the subscription's account-management page on the publisher's site. Many subscribers will never need to use this page. Others will use it to create and customize new subscriptions, license bulk copies, cancel a subscription if necessary, or for other purposes.

While the chits created by the publisher's server are typically eight random characters, subscribers can create new subscriptions with any new chit name they want, provided it is not already in use by that publisher. These chits can be any length, from just one character to thousands (both these extremes have real uses). The subscriber can add or subtract various powers from each newly created chit, creating customized new subscriptions for distribution to others.

The consequences of theft of a chit are small, so people can carry the code around and use or share it freely. The worst possible loss is the value of the subscription -- and if that is a concern, its owner can create a smaller subscription to carry around or share, while keeping the master in a safe place.

This is just the beginning. Our full article shows how to reduce harm or even gain benefit from unauthorized copies of sold information. It introduces other concepts such as sharing chits among teams; revocable and irrevocable subscriptions; prepaid, renewed, and per-use subscriptions; anonymous subscriptions and why they should cost more; expiration warnings to unknown subscribers; marked donation-only subscriptions; syndication for free use on Web sites; discounts and stop-loss provisions; propagation of restrictions; free or low-cost repeat downloads as a marketing tool; the importance of free information and open list serves for selling content; fully digital collectables that print limited-edition plaques for memorable or historic projects (options include the subscription's own history, art work chosen by its owner, and a secure autograph through public-key cryptography); subscribing to publications, databases, causes, or campaigns; dealing with theft; why chits have little or no street value; creative chit names including single letters, quotes, creeds, or entire documents; customized subscription expiration; and subscriptions as contests, puzzles or games.

For More Information

The latest full article is at:

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OK to distribute this summary unchanged, through December 2003. After December check the Web site above for the latest version.

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2003 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.