The History of Flattr – Short version!

I’ve been very active in the discussion about rights on the internet for a long time. For me, the interesting thing has always been how to make sure that people are being treated equally and fairly. The internet gives us those possibilities. But when talking about rights the discussion always ended up about rights of copying.

For years I’ve gone to panel debates, conferences, conventions, tv programs, radio shows, talk shows and written enormous amounts of articles, blog posts and so on about the issues. On the other side of the table there was always the self-proclaimed rights holders. People employed to please their own bosses with a set agenda, with no wiggle room. The most progressive thoughts they’ve had was to lower their prices by 20%.

Their question was always “how can we make money now that the internet kills our business”. Their answer was always (and still is) to close down the internet or at least let them control it, since they are the ones “suffering from the internet”. And because of their huge wallets and the power these groups has over the media, we still let this discussion be part of our everyday life. We let the entertainment industry dictate the terms of our discussions about internet freedom and culture. And they’re not even a real stake holder in those matters!

I became very upset about the fact that everyone tried to solve the wrong question. Instead of finding a solution they’ve told us to find, I set out to find the real question. And it was; How can we make a sustainable solution for sharing information freely? By defining the question we can find a solution.

In 2006 I started thinking about a technical platform for this. I called it “Share Donate” to begin with. The idea was that if everyone puts in a small portion of money, it will end up being a lot of money combined. In scandinavia we have the saying “many small streams form a big river” which elegantly describes the concept I was going for. People that wanted to share their information could join and get part of the money. A platform both encouraging and rewarding free access to information.

The technology to fairly distribute the money between stake holders was simple. At the time a lot of news aggregation sites, particularily digg.com, was growing and proved to be a fantastic way for people to find information that was relevant to them. A small click on a button told the world that you liked a certain thing; a behaviour that Facebook later adopted and made mainstream. A click on digg or facebook was interesting but it was made for discovery only, not the sustainability around the information. And we need both parts.

My idea was that even though information, whatever kind or form it has, will have a different value for every individiual person. Even the word “value” has in itself a different value to everyone. And at the same time most information is valued by putting an arbitrary price tag on it. In a digital world this became even more obscure since the actual cost of the copy is often not even measurable. The system I wanted to create had to look away from what most people learn in their first lesson of economy – that you have to set a price.

Share Donate was worked on slowly for years. I made the mockup in a few days. Then I stalled. I asked people for input. I asked people for help with the things I couldn’t manage myself. But I was never really sure. The idea felt too easy and noone had any real negative input on the concept. At the same time I was spending all my spare time on the wrong discussion, copyright. Since copyright is not the answer I eagerly wanted to find an alternate way of financial sustainability. And the more I thought about it the more I understood that this could be a way forward. A way that was fair to everyone, not forced upon people and gave everyone the same tools. A place with no need for monopolistic gatekeepers that decided which bits and bytes that was valuable or not. I decided that I had to put my energy into this for real.

One thing that was really bad was obviously the name. So Share Donate became Flattr. A Scandinavian tradition with play on words, that symbolises both the flatrate concept of the system – the same fee every month, no matter whom or how many you want to share it with, as well as the flatter you provide to the one that shared.

In the beginning of 2010 we launched the system – 4 years after the first idea sprung up. Since then I’ve learned a lot. We’ve re-done the system features and layout over and over again. But the core still remains. The goal and vision is still the same. And today it’s more urgent than it was just a few years ago.

12 thoughts on “The History of Flattr – Short version!

  1. Congrats on making a very practical system out of a wonderful ideal.

    You are right that the copyright debate gives the wrong solution to the wrong questions. Good for you for finding another way! But I have to ask, does this mean you are “giving up” debating copyright in favor of perfecting practical solutions like Flattr? A great endeavor, of course, but I’ve seen some of those debates and they are fascinating and inspiring.

    I hope that as Flattr and it’s ilk gain traction, creators will see this is a brighter alternative to the popular but antiquated business models currently in use. Then fans and creators can be on the same side of the table–as they should be!

  2. I’m not giving up the discussion. But I have a better question to hand out now. Copyright failed and every time someone asks me about it I just say that we will find a better and more fair solution – flattr maybe, or maybe something else. I ignore copyright as a question.

  3. @peter: I guess you also would agree that Flattr is more a practical example in the discussion about copyright then a final answer. It is somehow an successfull experiment for a voluntarily “culture flatrate”. But what conclusions did you get from Flattr for toughts about the “next evolutionary step” in terms of rewarding intellectual property on a lager scale? Will you cover that topic in your book you wanted to make?

  4. Peter, I believe I speak for all of us when I say Thank you for all the years you and your people held high the flag of sharing information freely!

    As you know flattr has a big community here in Germany and I sincerely hope that your idea will spread across borders and oceans and bring us one step closer to free (and reward-able) access to information.

    Thanks!

  5. Peter, I really feel like you must have been born in the future and then traveled back in time to save the internets from the evil content terminator bots, thank you for your wise words and hard work!

  6. Copyright from the beginning was always about not letting the masses get too enlightened. Few people are aware Germany had lax copyright law during the 20th century which helped them industrialize quickly vs Great Britain. Fox Studios started in California to esape ridiculous patent liscensing laws on camera equipment in New York.

    Some day soon the dinosaurs will die.

  7. I like the idea of Flattr. I use it and encourage people to use it. People usually don’t mind paying but they are rather hesitant to pay when it’s too complicated. This is solved by Flattr. You just click on a button and that’s it.

    For instance, there are people staring at me from the Wikipedia pages, asking me for money, but they don’t want them in the same time. Donating throug a credit card or PayPal takes too much time to be bothered with that and as a bonus, one caters to financial companies that doesn’t like at all while there are much more convenient systems in place. Can you imagine the amount of money Wikipedia would earn if they had a Flattr button for every single article?

    On the other hand, I also realize the drawbacks of Flattr. While the system helps the free society and free culture, Flattr itself is not free. It’s a proprietary, centralized system. I.e. rather like Twitter and Facebook than like Status.Net and Diaspora. I guess that systems maintaining freedom need to be free as well. The systems themselves have to be evangelists of freedom. Taking it into account, the only reason why I support Flattr (besides that it delivers a good idea) is that it’s being run by people that I trust and I don’t consider them evil. Otherwise, it would be just another PayPal.

    Peter, I know that you are a true Pirate. I know that you support free society, free culture, and freedom of information. Enough has been done to prove it. However, there have been raising concerns about the mentioned drawbacks in the Pirate community. And I can hardly oppose to them. Are you aware of it and do you have answers to those concerns? Thanks!

  8. Thanks for the nice feedback, everyone!
    First: onny – long topic – and I don’t think it will fit in my book. I will post a longer thread about that some day :-)

    Second, Marcel:

    I agree that it’s not a perfect solution to have a centralized system. I am also more fond of decentralized systems, such as Status.net, diaspora and so forth. I support all of those things. But the complications are different when it comes to fiscal matters as towards “normal” digitalized information. It’s not legal to just put up a node and start handling peoples money. You need special licenses, with different standards in different countries. You need to comply with KYC regulations (Know Your Customer), AML (Anti money laundring) and so on. This is not something that the software itself can solve. We are still applying for licenses today to do all of the things we want the software to do – things that take 2 codes of line to do needs 1000 signed papers, permits that costs thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of euros.

    For these reasons alone, it would be unfeasible to make a distributed system today. But there’s also the problem with security, trust and so on. Today we can’t even trust SSL, a basic mechanism to keep people a bit secure in their browsing. We need to work on these issues as well.

  9. Peter

    Just want to say that this is a brilliant idea, particularly for helping musicians. A similar idea to this had occurred to me months ago before seeing this site, and I’m glad to see you are doing it so well.

    My idea was of getting people together to sponsor and help support a few of their favorite musicians, so that the musician could focus on writing true music. The goal of everyone involved was to make the artist better -to allow them to develop a personal style, to dig it out of themselves and put it on a recording, without being lured & distracted by fame, free from having to cater to the trends -the status quo tastes that define what’s popular now.

    I think Flattr is a realization of this ideal. Instead of focusing on wether it being centralized or not is a good or bad thing, let’s focus on what Flattr can do in the bigger scope -ideally, make better artists.

    We have enough graphic artists & icon makers and enough self-indulgent artists getting paid to fill museums, how about something that helps people develop a personal style? Nietzsche said that true art makes a small sound, it’s nearly inaudible.

    In the world of music we’ve been awash in music imitating the past with lyrics that are nondescript, insincere or just inaudible bits that help express an emotion. We look for something genuine but can’t find it and so we resort to tried and true styles. Artists look too much outside of themselves, being influenced by myths of fame.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, but I feel like if musicians & artists weren’t obsessed with ‘making it’ and could just be pleased with ‘making a living’ then they would be freed to endeavor on a personal journey of discovery, which is what created the ‘geniuses’ of the past.

    Music isn’t as exciting or important as technology is today, let’s face it. Every new cultural breakthrough is happening in the world of tech, music has become a sideshow, Lady Gaga is too busy with fame to shed light on any truths of her own life.

    Let’s see this service for what it is -a proper rival and enemy of the sickening Hollywood & big business record industry standards that turn artists into diluted, mediocre fame-bots.

    And iTunes just propels the fame-based mentality further. Sure you don’t need a big record label, but you’ve got a few years during or after college to try to get noticed before you gotta go find a career.

    Because money is your primary concern, and to make it you need to sell your time.

    This could not have come at a better time.

  10. I agree with Marcel about the drawbacks of flattr. However, I also understand that it would be very hard to make flattr entirely free. Maybe one day this will indeed be possible. Until then it’s important that we can trust flattr. How do we know that you will not turn into yet another “evil” company once you have reached critical mass? What is your future growth vision/mission? What happens with the money you (will) earn anyway? Be transparent. Ally with folks we already trust (FSF?).

  11. Peter,

    Thank you for your explanation! I understand that making the system decentralized would be too difficult at the moment. However, are many more steps that could be done shifting it from proprietary to free including making the code free, allow to use own avatars, while not using another proprietary system (Gravatar), promoting rather free Status.Net and Diaspora than proprietary Twitter and Facebook, accepting BitCoins, etc. That would lead in gaining trust by showing others that you truly live your values. You know what I mean, right?

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