Microwave, Microphone, Micropay...
May 2003

by James Colburn


Ralph to Abe: "If you're losing $1.50 on each shirt you sell how can you stay in business?"

Abe to Ralph: "Volume!"

When all is said and done one positive thing about the Internet and the World Wide Web has got to be the shear volume of artistic product that can be displayed. In this case the product is photographs but it can be any kind or art imaginable, with the possible exception of sculpture.

As an editor I see so many excellent photographs taken by photographers on assignment that it often breaks your heart that the magazine I work for just doesn't have the space to publish. Oh sure, if you got rid of all the silly stuff like articles and advertisements you could probably fit a few more in, but you'd have to charge $20 for a copy and you'd rapidly go out of business.

When a magazine publisher pays a photographer $500 to publish a photo he can rationalize the cost by thinking that, spread out over a circulation of 4,000,000, the picture costs about 0.000125 cents per copy. Print 10 pictures and your still only up to 0.00125 cents per copy. A cover ($5000), 30 single pictures and a photo essay with another 20 photos and he's spending a whopping 0.0075 per copy. In an ideal world he could sell the magazine for one dollar each and make $3,970,000 profit every issue. This model fails when you have to factor in printing, paper, distribution, text.... Stuff like that.

The Internet is a natural place for the "extended magazine." Disk space is cheaper than ink and paper and that fact enables publishers all over the world to present single photos and pictures stories that would never see the printing press. The big problem still seems to be making it pay for itself or, indeed, making a profit.

Some web sites are free to the viewer and accept advertising. Some try to charge a subscription fee. I propose another idea and that is something I call micropayments. Imagine, if you will, going to a web site of interest and being asked to pay five cents, or a dime, to view that "issue" for the month (or week) that it was current. You could set things up so that you'd automatically be charged that three cents when you visited for the next issue or you could just get the "Do you want to pay five cents" question every time you looked at a new issue. For a special section containing ten world class photographers work from the latest battle field you might be asked to pay and extra nickel. The key is very small sums of money from many, many people. One million viewers paying ten cents each would give the web site $100,000 and for a lean, well run operation that could be a comfortable profit. The viewer could get these micropayments billed to his or her secure credit card account once a month and would probably find that they'd spent about as much for web viewing as they spend on a daily newspaper.

Micropayments could be extended to all sorts of areas. If you are a photographer and have galleries of pictures on your web sites there's nothing to stop some high schooler grabbing your image and using it in a term paper. Now the student or parent isn't going to want to spend $75 to license the image but five cents? Sure.... Micropay it! "The budget for your history paper is 75 cents, young lady, not a penny more!"

There are some small issues to work out. Things like internationally recognized standards and protocols for the billing system, anti-hacker security measures, the okay from credit card issuers and maybe a discount system for viewers in poor countries where ten cents might be a day's wages. All it would take would be a few million dollars in software coding and the co-operation of sworn enemies in the computing field. But they agreed on that "@" thing in our email addresses, didn't they?

© 2003 James Colburn
Contributing Writer


Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist