This article is now superseded by The Creator-Endorsed Mark; please see there instead.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