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Helping Haiti For Nothing


Here’s something that amazed me recently. Customers at OneBookShelf donated over $175,000 (U.S.) to Doctors Without Borders for Haiti.
Who are these customers? People who enjoy role-playing games, not the biggest demographic. In fact, it’s a smaller slice than that – these are the people so enthusiastic they actually spend money on RPGs. And a smaller slice than that again – they are the people who keep up with online activity in the RPG industry. This is, by all rights, a tiny set of people.
That tiny set raised a pretty hefty donation sum. This happened through a fascinating initiative by the OneBookShelf people.
OneBookShelf run DriveThruRPG, an online store that sells electronic books for the RPG market. When you make a purchase, you get a download link and receive a PDF copy of the document you ordered. It sits on your computer. You can print it out if you want, but most people never do.
(The rise of the PDF market in the RPG hobby is a story in itself. It reflects the unique character of the role-playing game, and so doesn’t generalize easily to other niche industries, but there are lessons here anyway. Short version: the PDF suited the RPG hobby for two reasons:
(1) because RPGs rely on taking ideas and systems and enacting them in a dialogue-based form of play, and an electronic text supports this just as well as a physical text;
(2) because those ideas and systems are endlessly open to expansion and addition; there is always room for more chunks of content.)
Building a marketplace out of electronic products presented some challenges. In the early days of DriveThruRPG, the site indulged heavily in what is called “DRM” – digital rights management. This was an elaborate set of technical restrictions that limited your ability to copy the file. The fear was that without DRM, customers would simple email the file they purchased to all their friends, or put it up somewhere on the internet where anyone could download it without paying a cent. DriveThru’s DRM was a disaster. There was a huge outcry when users found their purchases didn’t function smoothly; the technical challenges of DRM had been met with a very clumsy solution, and DriveThru almost died before it got going. After some thought, they came up with an extremely elegant solution than has been in place for years since: when you purchase a file, it is “watermarked” with your name. Your identity is tied to the product, so if the publisher one day finds it on the internet for free download, they know exactly who is responsible. Everyone was very happy with this solution.
Electronic products also offer significant advantages that physical products can’t match. The Haiti donation total came about when OneBookShelf leveraged one of these advantages. In fact, they leveraged exactly the same feature that led to the whole DRM debacle, namely that electronic copies are in themselves valueless. An electronic file is not a “thing” that holds value in the same way a physical object does. With the click of a mouse I can have make two copies, or two-hundred.
So OneBookShelf went to its publishers and said something like “we’re going to sell a bundle of products, all revenue goes to Haiti. Can we include one of your products in the bundle?” A lot of publishers said yes. It was easy to do so – what are they actually giving away, here? Sure, you’re putting a product in someone’s hands that they might one day have paid you for – but that’s a relatively small cost. Heck, it’s even marketing – if they like product X that is in the bundle, maybe they’ll get interested and go on to purchase products Y and Z?
The bundle went on sale at $20. It included over a hundred files from over a hundred companies. Purchased separately, the bundle value would be in the region of $1300.
Response was enormous, and deservedly so. Gamers loved getting their hands on all these files for such a low price – and that, to a good cause. Publishers loved being part of such a successful and worthwhile promotion. OneBookShelf loved being at the centre of a huge charitable effort. And I’m sure DWB didn’t sneeze at $175,000 of donation money. Everyone came out happy. This was possible because the products in question were electronic files with no inherent value.
This is a fascinating sign of how the rules are changing as the world moves towards digital presentation of content over physical. Paperbacks and newspapers and vinyl won’t ever go away, but they are on their way to being secondary channels. Digital books and online news and mp3s are on the way up. The steady rise of the pocket computer will not slow down any time soon, and as this technology shift continues, the whole groundwork of content production will continue to face overhaul after overhaul. It’s exciting (and sometimes scary) times.
The music industry has for a long time been at the front end of this challenge. Music has gone digital in a big way. Most music is now downloaded, not purchased from the High Street CD store. The record companies have fought hard against this (just like they fought against cassette tapes, remember that Home Taping Is Killing Music) but it can’t be stopped. While some artists have made themselves comfortable in this new environment, the general way forward is far from clear, and the big companies are still flailing as they try to impose revenue models from retailing units that have no inherent value. There’s a lot more flailing to come.
OneBookShelf’s success with this is a straight-up challenge to the music industry, and other industries where electronic products are the norm. Imagine if, the next time there’s a crisis like Haiti, the Universal Music Group (for example) release a bundle of music for $25 – one mp3 from every artist in their enormous catalogue. They would raise millions. And everyone would walk away happy, wouldn’t they? After all, what would UMG really be sacrificing?
More than this – it’s a challenge to everyone. We need to think differently about objects, about information, about value. Time was, words only existed if they were carved in a stone or printed on paper. Words aren’t tied to a page any more. That changes everything.

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