Interview with Giftfile Project's John Belmonte

Following is the text of an email interview with the Giftfile Project's John Belmonte conducted by Juraj Bednár in June and July, 2004. Edited and translated to Slovak, it was published as part of Juraj's article "Peer-to-peer Networks as You Don't Know Them", PC Revue, November, 2004.

Juraj: A friend comes to visit me while I listen to music. He likes it, so I give it to him. After becoming a fan, he donates money to the author to appreciate and reward his work. Is this what project Giftfile tries to achieve?

John: Yes, that is one scenario. There are many more. For example, a company might use a free software GUI library in their mobile phone product. Since the company's business relies on this free software, they want to encourage future development such as bug fixes, performance improvements, and new features. The giftfile system lets this happen in a straightforward way.

There is another interesting aspect. Instead of taking the money that has been allocated to her work, an author might pass it on towards other works. So in your example, perhaps the musician uses some free software in his studio for processing audio. He shares a portion of his income with the publisher of that software.

Juraj: Giving money is achieved using non-profit organizations. I can choose one to handle the transaction for me. If two authors I wish to support happen to use different organizations, do I have to make two initial transactions or is clearing among non-profit organizations possible?

John: As a supporter, you can allocate money to a giftfile even if the author uses a different nonprofit. In fact, we expect to see transactions across both geographic and currency boundaries. The nonprofits, called giftpools, will be responsible for the hard work of sending money across these boundaries. It won't be so bad, because the money waiting to be transferred from one giftpool to another can be aggregated, and possibly cancelled with a reciprocal amount. The giftpools will only exchange money when the amount is large enough to be transferred efficiently.

Juraj: How secure is giftfile? How do I make sure that I donate money to the author and not to someone else?

John: Within the domain it was designed for, the giftfile system is very secure. It uses PGP cryptography. Once you have an identity in the system, nobody can spoof that identity and make transactions on your behalf-- as long as your private key is kept safely. Beyond that, you must find a giftpool that you trust. Our organization, for example, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In the United States, this is the type of nonprofit that operates under the strictest rules, and must disclose its financial information to the public.

Trusting that the publisher of a giftfile is the "real author" of the work, however, is an issue outside the scope of the system. Remember that, for works in the public domain or under nonproprietary license, the author has allowed anyone to sell her work for a profit. Let's think of some examples for a music track-- somebody might remix it, another person makes a compilation CD, another uses it in a video game, and another performs it with his own band. All of these are new works. If I give 25 cents to the remix author for his work, how should he share it with the original author? Oh, and I left out one important example-- a publisher might simply make the track available for download on the internet, without any changes. Is it ethical for him to accept money for the work? Consider that he might be paying a large bandwidth bill for serving the file. He might also have an arrangement with the author to share the income.

So for a given work, several people and organizations may have been involved in its production. There is no algorithm for how to share the money-- we can't automate it. Instead, we have to accept that the giftfile system is only a tool. It's up to the communities that use the tool to build a network of trust on top of it. As a hint, PGP enables many possibilities for modelling trust.

Juraj: How difficult is it to start such a non-profit organization? What is required (from technological point of view)?

John: A nonprofit is a business that must be accountable to the public, so it's a big responsibility. Like any business, it is difficult to start and maintain. I don't want to discourage anyone-- we are eager for other people, especially outside the United States, to take an interest in operating a giftpool. On the other hand, I don't want someone to enter that path thinking it will be easy.

Technically, running a giftpool will involve operating a server to conduct transactions. As part of the Giftfile Project, we've developed reference software for this. In addition, custom software might be required to interface the server to your corporate bank account, and to any services used to send and receive money. And for the brave people ready to build the second giftpool, be prepared to work with us in developing the intergiftpool protocol :-). Really, we are still working to get the first giftpool on its feet. I left out many details simply because I don't know them yet.

In addition to the formation of new organizations, we'd like to see a few existing nonprofits take on operation of a giftpool. Any nonprofit having a direct interest in the promotion of nonproprietary works would be a candidate.

Juraj: Do you think that giftfile—if successful—will enable users to donate money from portable devices (car players, mp3 and cd players)? For example donating to the authors of music I listen to most often.

John: That is certainly possible. You might not want to keep your private key on all those devices. Instead of making a transaction directly, it's easy to imagine that they store the information and later upload it to a local server. That server will manage the transactions and have access to your private key. Another possibility is to manage your account from a USB dongle device, which you simply plug into these players.

Using bootable live Linux CD's, we can already make video games that will play instantly on any PC. It's the free software community's answer to the Playstation or Xbox. Coming soon are open handheld game systems. In the spirit of the old 25 cent video game machines, I would love to be able to press a button and send some money to the game publisher every time I played. In fact, I am a video game developer too, so I have an interest in both sides of the coin.

Juraj: Do you think the record industry will be against this type of economy? How much value do you think they add to the "music product"? Will the industry suffer from Giftfile economies?

John: Since musicians make so little money the way things are now, it won't be very hard for them to see an improvement. Music fans are loyal and want to support their favorite artists. The giftfile system will be very efficient with their donations. Thinking beyond money, grab the nearest commercial CD and look at the copyright. It's not the author's, because he gave it up when he signed the record contract. Under the giftfile system, the author can keep his copyright or may choose to put the work in the public domain. Either sounds better than giving it to a rich industry that sues its own customers.

The record industry is in a difficult position. It's not due to "illegal" filesharing, but because they don't offer a usefulness in line with the percentage they take. If I'm a new musician who wants to become known around the world, I'll release a few outstanding tracks under a free license. Is it necessary for a record company to spend half a million dollars promoting me?

I should point out that we are not opposed to middlemen. The role of publisher is an essential one. In fact, publishers are the only entity directly represented on the producer side of the giftfile system. In many cases, the publisher and author are the same person. In other situations, however, we must rely on publishers to distribute income among the deserving parties.

Juraj: How far is the implementation from the actual working economy? When can we donate first money to the work we like?

John: The giftfile system implementation is fairly unique in that it is a nonproprietary system that deals with real money. We want to be very sure that it operates correctly and is secure and robust before deploying it for real use. It's hard to predict when we will reach that level of confidence. The more volunteer assistance we receive and donations we collect, the sooner it will happen.

In the meantime, our next milestone is to create a system that is real in every way, except that no actual money is transacted between the users and the giftpool. Think of it as a "play money" gift economy. Reaching this milestone is not just a matter of completing the protocol and server software, or implementing various clients. We'll depend on real users-- both the producers of nonproprietary works and their supporters-- to incorporate giftfiles into their daily computer use. Only through this level of cooperation can we discover and address the practical issues that will inevitably appear, allowing us to make the transition to real money.

Juraj: Thank you for your time.

John: Nice talking to you Juraj!