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A Crowdfunded Approach To Setting E-Books Free

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What do To Kill A Mockingbird, A Wrinkle in Time and Little House on the Prairie series have in common, besides being beloved? None of them are available legally as e-books. A new site aims to make these and other e-books available to the public (and in libraries), as DRM-free Creative Commons works, via crowdfunding.

The newly launched, now in alpha, is a place for individuals and institutions to join together to liberate specific e-books and other types of digital content by paying rights holders to relicense their works under Creative Commons licenses.

Here’s how the site will work when it is fully up and running: A book’s digital rights holder sets the price for which he or she is willing to make a book as a Creative Commons, DRM-free e-book. (Under Creative Commons, the rights holder’s copyright is protected and the rights holder can still enter into commercial agreements for other versions of the work, such as film and translation; he or she can also continue selling it in print and digital formats.)

Then begins a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding campaign to raise money to set the book “free.” Users make pledges that are pre-authorized using PayPal. Once the money is raised — the practical limit of a campaign is about six months, says Hellman — the book is released and takes a commission.

The company behind the site is called Gluejar. It is led by Eric Hellman, who writes about the intersection of technology, libraries and e-books and previously worked at the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).

Hellman says Gluejar is in part a reaction to the changing role of libraries in the U.S. “We’re excited about the possibility ousing libraries as our way to reach people who are interested in reading and want to support the production of books,” Hellman told me. With many big publishers either withdrawing e-books from libraries or refusing to make them available in the first place, could be a way for libraries to directly contribute funds toward their patrons’ most-requested digital titles. The company is adding features that cater to libraries, according to Library Journal.

For now, is very new, collecting feedback from its alpha users and has not begun any pledging campaigns yet. The company has spent the last month speaking with digital rights holders, “mostly literary agents and some academic publishers,” Hellman said. “We’ll launch with a small number of campaigns,” hopefully including some “works that are of modest significance.”

In other words, don’t expect to see a pledge campaign for a very well-known title like To Kill a Mockingbird any time soon. The rights holder of a book like that “would demand a high pricetag, and they’re not going to run a campaign until they can identify lots of people who are willing to put up money,” said Hellman. That’s why launched with the ability for people to wish for a particular title. “If something like To Kill a Mockingbird was to be offered, we’d have to get thousands of people wishing for it first” — so that the rights holder can see the demand is there and set a price.

So far, eight users have wished for To Kill a Mockingbird. Alpha users’ most wished-for title is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, with ten requests. See all the most wished-for titles here.

“We’re expecting to start out with small and less valuable works,” Hellman said. “Rights holders are hesitant to offer things without seeing the model succeed for other works, and so we’ll have to build up some successes first.”

Hellman acknowledges that publishers, who hold the digital rights to many beloved titles, may be reluctant to “try a new model.” But “they’re in the business of making money,” so if becomes popular enough they may come around. And, Hellman says, “a work that has been made available under a Creative Commons license is more valuable to the public than a work that is limited by DRM. There’s potential that the public will value [such an e-book] more than they value it now.”

*Correction: A previous version of this article said The Great Gatsby is not available legally as an e-book; it is. I regret the error.

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