The "Author-Endorsed" Mark: A Proposal for Informed Sharing

Author-Endorsed Mark

This article is now superseded by The Creator-Endorsed Mark; please see there instead.

Imagine if when you obtained a book (or a song or a movie), you could know whether or not the way you obtained it was explicitly endorsed by its author. Could you use that information to make better choices?

I think so. Here's a scenario: you walk into your local copy shop and ask for a book you saw recommended on someone's blog. Machines to print books on demand are already here (see the Bookmobile, for example), so let's assume that printing up a book at a copy shop is a reasonable thing to do.

Under the current copyright system, the copy shop must have permission from the copyright holder to print the book for you. One way for them to get permission is to work out bulk deals with publishers, so that every time the shop prints a book, a certain percentage goes to the publisher (and then a percentage of that goes to the author). Another possibility is for copy shops to become publishers themselves, bypassing the traditional publishers and working out deals with authors directly.

But many other arrangements are possible, and as more and more information moves onto the Internet, we can't predict what all such arrangements might look like, nor should we try. What we really need is a flexible framework in which authors and readers can experiment with different models, without being forced into distribution systems that are more restrictive than either party actually wants.

For example, some authors might prefer an approach that takes into account the fact that readers differ in price sensitivity. For such authors, a better arrangement with the copy shop would be to simply set a suggested donation. The shop tells the customer what the author's suggested amount is, and the customer can include it in the final price, or increase it, or decrease it, depending on her needs and resources (the copy shop's own copying fee sets the "floor" for the price the customer pays). The copy shop accumulates the donations and sends them in to the author by whatever means the two arrange, most likely an intermediary service.

Is this the best possible system for all creative works? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that it would be good for such experimentation to be not only possible, but easy. In that spirit, here's a proposal for enabling experimentation.

The Author-Endorsed Mark would be a single trademarked certification symbol that anyone can use to certify their distribution of a work, if the author (copyright holder) has given them permission to do so. In other words, the author is the licensor of the mark, and the distributor is the licensee. An author would allow use of the mark in order to say "These terms of distribution have been endorsed by the author of this work.". Someone can still distribute the work without meeting those terms, but they can only display the mark if they meet the terms. The point is to provide information, instead of imposing restraints: the purpose of the mark is to allow recipients to know what channels and methods of distribution are endorsed by an artist, yet not restrict everyone to using just those channels (unlike current copyright law).

Currently, by contrast, we have a system in which recipients never have to think about the difference between an author-endorsed channel and a non-endorsed — but still legal — channel. Although this distinction could exist in theory, in practice we rarely get to choose. Instead, most channels are both legal and (implicitly) endorsed, since distributors must negotiate with copyright holders in order to distribute.

It doesn't have to be like this, and some artists would actually prefer a more relaxed way. Instead of being forced accomplices in a system that shuts down anyone who hasn't negotiated with them or their representatives, what if artists could offer audiences a way to merely distinguish between endorsed and non-endorsed distributions, and then let the audiences make their own choice? "Non-endorsed" needn't mean "illegal", it would simply mean that distributor has not met the author's preferences, and therefore may not use the Author-Endorsed Mark. If there's just one mark that everyone uses for this purpose, some percentage of people will learn to look for it, just as a percentage of people have learned to look for the organic certification symbol when shopping for food.

Artists' preferences don't have to be about money, either. Earlier, I used a suggested donation amount as an example of a preference, but it could just as easily have been quality of paper, or print resolution, or the presence or absence of advertising on a DVD, or various combinations thereof. The Author-Endorsed Mark is an experimentation enabler: it gives artists a tool to encourage some actions without prohibiting others. Some purchasers will follow the artist's preferences, but others will try out different arrangements — arrangements that might unexpectedly please or benefit the artist. Instead of everyone being forced to act more or less in lockstep, the way they are today, we could open up the floodgates to a real diversity of systems, while still giving people the ability to make informed choices among those systems.

During a discussion of this proposal, Brian Fitzpatrick pointed out that it might be useful to have a "negative" version of the mark: a symbol you can (or must?) use when distributing something in a way that you don't know is in accord with the author's wishes. I think that's a neat idea: it forces everyone involved in the transaction to be positively aware of the choices they're making, but without preventing the transaction itself.

That might just be the great lesson of the Internet: information beats control, every time.


Chat with David Glasser about the Author-Endorsed Mark.

David Glasser and I had a chat room conversation about this proposal, that I think might clarify some things. With David's permission, here's the transcript:

glasser: I've been thinking about the [a] thing for a little

kfogel: It's so odd how we have wrapped up the [a] concept in (c) for so long that for many people, they are inseparable.

glasser: It's a nice idea in general, though it raises the question for me of who exactly gets to be "the author". Say for a movie... would a DVD get an [a] on it because the director endorsed? the producer? everyone involved?

glasser: and if you end up leaning towards "everyone involved", at what point do you draw the line and say that the traditional "publisher" isn't part of "everyone"?

kfogel: glasser: one nice thing is that that question already exists today and has means of being settled today.

glasser: I guess you could just be more specific: "The director approves of this edition.", etc

kfogel: We already *have* attribution conventions, they're just enforced by means of copyright.

kfogel: We can keep the conventions, but enforce them by their own laws, independently of copying.

glasser: Right, it's not about attribution though, it's about this idea of blessing particular copies/versions with this "author endorsed" status

kfogel: Since the act of copying is neither necessary nor sufficient for an act of [mis]attribution or [mis]endorsement to take place.

glasser: Sure, no disagreement there

kfogel: glasser: well, one clean solution is to just say "whoever the copyright holder is"

kfogel: In other words, you can sell the right to be the endorser, rather than selling the right to restrict others from making copies.

kfogel: s/copyright/creditright/, or s/copyright/endorse-right/, in a sense

kfogel: I know that sounds odd, but it kind of follows from the proposition that being the endorser has some value to someone.

glasser: So you'd imagine this as being part of a contract?

kfogel: In practice, no author would sell off that right wholesale. They'd rent it out at terms, as described in the article, I think.

glasser: It just seems hard to believe that a traditional publisher, in a world where people expected to see [a], wouldn't require authors publishing through them to include the mark.

glasser: "No editor, marketing, or distribution for you without your endorsement"

kfogel: Traditional publishing is on life-support; I'm not too worried about whether a given model supports it :-).

kfogel: Right, that's the sort of contract an author might sign, then.

kfogel: and that's fine!

* glasser nods.

kfogel: After all, the important difference is that the publisher can't prevent others from copying or distributing, it's just that only *that* publisher can display the mark

glasser: sure

glasser: but I wonder if its meaning gets diminished if people assume it's just "that's how the contract works" and not "the author's true innermost desires"

glasser: (this may be a little off-topic here though, sorry)

kfogel: note that the three things offered by your hypothetical publisher ("editor", "marketing", and "distribution") are... well: the third is blown open by the Internet, the second is an arms race and should not concern us, and the first is something that can happen as easily after publication as before (as we who work on online documentation know).

kfogel: It's on topic according to the channel topic right now :-).

kfogel: (If someone wanders in to talk real dev, we should stop, of course.)

kfogel: I think people don't (and shouldn't) care if it represents the author's true innermost heartfelt desires.

kfogel: The publisher must have offered the author *something* the author wanted, in order to get the right to use the mark.

kfogel: After all, the author doesn't need the publisher, if it's just a matter of distribution.

glasser: Ah, I think I had misunderstood --- I thought that the TIHD was the point here.

kfogel: The fact that the author gave the publisher the right to display the mark means that *by definition* the author endorses the method of distribution. This is what endorsement means.

kfogel: The author endorses of the method, or the amount the publisher paid the author, or *something*.

kfogel: So it is TIHD, in a sense.

kfogel: People can always change their minds; that's why we have contracts and escape clauses and whatnot.

kfogel: Look at it from the user's point of view:

kfogel: If I see the mark, I know that acquiring the work from the mark-displaying source means the author is content with the arrangement. If she weren't, I wouldn't be seeing that mark.

kfogel: Er, anyway, got to go [make a phone call]. Do feel free to leave comments on the article, I'd be happy to answer at length there (or actually, can I just put a transcript of this discussion as a comment? that might clarify things for some readers)

glasser: Sure

glasser: I'll comment if you don't reproduce it in a way I endorse :)

[Note: this transcript was later updated when we changed the mark, for clarity, from "author-approved" to "author-endorsed". --The Editors]

Badgeware problems with "negative" mark

The "negative" version of the mark, as discussed with Brian Fitzpatrick, would possibly suffer from the same problems as badgeware. IE, aggregation of badges, limitation of use to "badgable" media types etc.

So I am not so sure it's such a good idea.


I think it would be a difficult system to implement, it seems very similar to the issues faced with music production and copyright. If a print shop can print and distibute a book on demand there has to be some way of tracking the amount of copies produced, as this would be unfair on the author.