The ongoing copyright wars between the various media industry associations and file sharers have a tendency to create collateral damage in the form of laws that severely restrict the internet. In my arrogant opinion it looks likely that in a technical arms race the file sharers will win. This is problematic as it means that copyright supporters can only win by legally hobbling the internet. To avoid this it seems to me two things need to happen.

The first thing that needs to happen is acceleration of the technology arms race. If we have a maximally effective file sharing technology soon then the only viable counter will be laws so draconian that they will be clearly unacceptable. If the technology continues to get better in small steps then the laws will continue to get worse in small steps that may be individually tolerable but collectively end up returning us to the dark ages of centrally managed media.

The second thing that needs to happen is elimination of the the perceived need for such draconian laws. The fundamental problem copyright addresses is the non-excludability of the fixed costs of cultural production. While there is no reason to support those whose stake in the copyright wars is the protection of an inefficient distribution system we still want as many performers and demiurges as possible to be able to obtain their livelihood by following their muse. Two factors suggest that the threat of legal force is unnecessary to ensure this. Firstly there is the fact that file sharers buy more which suggests we don't need to worry overly about freeloaders. Secondly the moral repugnance most people feel for plagiarists will likely ensure that anyone engaging in passing off someone else's work as their own will be quickly detected and boycotted. The problem therefore is not how to make people pay but how to let them.

Which brings me to my idea for how to let people pay. A web site where authors and performers or those with their approval can upload their works. The users of the site can freely download the works and award them stars which are used as input to a collaborative filtering algorithm that helps find other works they might like. The trick is that they can only award a limited number of stars without paying and once they have awarded sufficient stars then the artists receive a percentage of the money paid for those stars. As the users award more stars they get better recommendations and the stars change their nominal material indicating the percentage going to the artists. The number of free stars would have to be chosen carefully to ensure that useful recommendations are received before they run out while still leaving room for improvement. Given that stars would have to be cheap enough that people would not feel inhibited about awarding them it is unlikely that this could support a full length movie or book but it might be possible to make a living from producing short stories, films and music this way.