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File Downloads in The Origami Source

Edited by Thomas Hull

As the internet has revolutionized the distribution of music and seems poised to do the same for books and magazines with the growth of iPads, tablets, and other e-readers, the world of origami instructional sales has remained largely confined to the 20th century world of physical printed matter. True, many origami books are now available as electronic editions from their respective publishers. But many origami aficionados seek something more: the ability to purchase individual origami instructions without having to buy an entire book, in much the same way that iTunes and other online music stores allow the purchase of individual songs, separate from albums.

The topic of individually downloadable diagrams is perennially discussed on internet mailing lists, one guaranteed to bring out a diversity of opinion (on this and the related topics of copyright and unauthorized postings of origami books and diagrams). One of the arguments often made in support of postings on file-sharing sites is that people want to buy individual origami instructions rather than entire books, the way they want to buy individual songs; given legal opportunities to do so, they would support online sales of individual diagrams, or so the argument is made. This is much the same argument made for online music sales and, indeed, iTunes and its brethren have shown that there is a thriving market for downloadable song sales at the individual song level.

Of course, there are several orders of magnitude between the sizes of the markets for downloadable music and downloadable origami diagrams and many other differences between music and origami diagrams. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. But without real data, we'd never know whether the same arguments and mechanisms apply. After on-and-off discussions over several years, we in OrigamiUSA resolved to give the notion the benefit of the doubt. And so, several years ago, the OrigamiUSA web team put on our long-term wish list the goal of bringing file download sales to The Origami Source, OrigamiUSA's online store for books and paper.

Now, bringing an online download store to the OrigamiUSA website presented a few challenges. While iTunes (and others) provided a model for what such a store might look like and offer, Apple Computer has a slightly larger development staff than OrigamiUSA (whose development staff is, in fact, a handful of volunteers who all have day jobs of various sorts, augmented by a few paid hours from an expert). We were aided, though, by our content management and e-commerce systems: we use the open-source system known as Drupal to run the website, and just this past year replaced the nearly 10-year-old e-commerce system for The Origami Source with an online store based on Ubercart, another open-source system that works within Drupal. Ubercart is constructed in a modular fashion and has hundreds of modules contributed by its users, including one that supports the sale of file download products. We could just plug it in and play away!

Or so the theory went. Except that we needed to do more than just sell files: we also needed to create a submission system whereby third parties could submit files for sale and have them be tracked and approved. And, most importantly, we needed to be able to track sales and payments so that file uploaders could get paid. And that required new programming.

Fortunately, our volunteer staff includes programmers, and we set out to write the necessary modules in August, 2012. And, using Drupal and Ubercart as our foundation, after a few weeks, we had a prototype system ready for testing.

Up until that point, the project was very much in stealth mode—not that we had aspirations of an eventual IPO, but rather we were acutely aware of the phenomenon of overpromising something that never came to fruition. But by mid-August, we had an honest-to-gosh download system prototype working! At that point, it was time to take the wraps off and enlist some testers. We told the world what we were doing in August and asked for volunteers—potential sellers—to participate in a testing period to both shake out the bugs (of which there were several), and also to test the usability of the system, both as sellers and buyers of products. We did our testing on a "shadow" copy of the OrigamiUSA website, so that people could try things out and we could make changes without adversely affecting the "real" website, which gets almost constant usage, typically over 1000 visitors per day.

User testing uncovered quite a few bugs, as I said; it also identified several areas where we could improve the usability. And usability, we figured, was critical to the project. After all, there are already ways that people can sell downloadable origami instructions on the internet, via Kindle, by Barnes & Noble, via the Apple iBookstore, the Android store, and many other places (not to mention individual people's own websites). What could OrigamiUSA, with its tiny volunteer staff, do in a marketplace that has multiple sellers supported by large paid teams of crack programmers?

Two things, as it turns out: (1) we could provide easy access for buyers; (2) we could provide easy access for sellers. The Origami Source already does a successful business in books and paper despite the presence of several other sellers in the market ranging from origami specialists to giant book and and craft stores by providing a good selection all in one place that's easy to get to. But, we felt, even more importantly, we could make it easy for sellers to make their diagrams available for sale in The Origami Source, and that seemed like one of the most important things to do. In fact, it seemed like the most important thing to do. If we didn't make it easy and desirable for sellers to sell their instructions, we certainly wouldn't get buyers, no matter how easy we made it for the latter!

So we wanted to make it easy for sellers to participate, and it really is pretty simple. Sellers apply by filling out a short online form giving their contact and payment information, and once they're approved (usually within a day), they can immediately start uploading files.

Another aspect of making the store desirable for sellers was to give them a good financial deal. Sellers keep most of the sales price: up to 70% of the list price of each project. The exact formula is:

\[ (\mathrm{seller\; share}) = 0.70 \times (\mathrm{list\; price}) - $0.12, \]

with a minimum sales prices of $1.00.

The minimum price and $0.12 are part of the seller compensation formula rather than a simple flat percentage because there are fixed costs associated with each transaction that we need to cover. For the lowest-priced products ($1.00 each), the seller gets 58 cents for each product sold. For higher-priced products, the seller share becomes relatively higher, approaching a maximum of 70%, which is pretty much the maximum that any online store offers to sellers (and is higher than many).

Another big question to address in setting up the system was: do we use Digital Rights Management (DRM) to try to protect the sold files?

For that question, we looked to Apple iTunes and the existing digital music markets for guidance. They started out with DRM, and then moved away from it over time. We saw that this movement seemed to be due to two large factors:

(1) DRM places an undesirable burden on your paid users, who are the very people you want to make happy;

(2) Every DRM system that has ever been devised has been cracked by hackers.

If the geniuses at Apple and Adobe and the Hollywood movie studios hadn't devised a hacker-proof system, we amateur volunteers at OrigamiUSA sure weren't going to! So, instead, we implemented a system to "nudge" people in the right direction and to appeal to their sense of fairness. All PDF downloads are watermarked with the name of the purchaser. That doesn't prevent redistribution, but it should make the casual purchaser a bit reluctant to post their purchases willy-nilly on file-sharing sites. Of course there are ways to remove watermarks; but there are ways to circumvent any system, so we're not going to prevent someone determined to redistribute the file no matter what we do. Instead, we appeal to people's better natures: if an artist sells work through The Source and it ends up all over the place, they're not going to continue to make things available for sale, and we hope, that will be sufficient incentive for buyers to honor the artists' work.

Another issue to address in our relationship with sellers was how and when they get paid. It would be impractical for us to pay each seller each time a product is sold, due to fixed costs of payment. So we make quarterly payments, subject to a minimum threshold. Each quarter, if the amount owed a seller is over $20, they get sent a check (best for our US sellers) or issued a PayPal payment (better for our overseas sellers) for the amount owed them. If their earnings don't meet the $20 threshold, then they just roll over to the next pay period.

The OrigamiUSA website and its Drupal content management system already offers a way of assigning and tracking the identities of its users, which is the username/password system of having people log into the website. We'd already made use of that ability to provide members-only content to OrigamiUSA members (most notably, The Fold, our online magazine, which provides a mix of members-only content and open-access content, like this article). So when we built the product submission system and payment tracking system, we could build it on top of the existing user-login system (which was already in use for The Origami Source—when you are logged in, you can see a record of all of your own online purchases). We could use that same system to identify and track sellers and to associate their downloads offered for sale with their online identity.

The username/password combination is associated with a user's email address and contact information, but it is not the same as an OrigamiUSA membership. In fact, membership in OrigamiUSA is not at all required for download sellers. We wanted to make a system that was useful for anyone, anywhere, whether buyer or seller. So anyone, OrigamiUSA member or not, can sell a file download, and anyone, OrigamiUSA member or not, can buy one as well. It has been a long-term policy that OrigamiUSA member buyers received a 10% discount on their purchases of books and paper at The Source, and that member discount is extended to buyers of file downloads as well. But the member discount doesn't diminish what the seller gets; the seller always gets the full seller amount, whether the sales price was discounted or not.

By the beginning of October, we felt we had shaken out the bugs from our testing system and had identified and implemented a number of usability enhancements that needed to be present from the get-go. And so, on Monday, October 1, 2012, we went live with the download wing of The Origami Source! Many of our testers joined the seller program and uploaded a range of files and e-books at a range of prices and difficulty levels. Within the first day, we had our first sales, and both new products and download sales have proceeded apace ever since.

As of this writing (early October), it's still too early to say whether the store is a success, although the applications to sell, uploaded products, and download sales to date are certainly encouraging. But we think we have a solid foundation for future growth. We hope to continue expanding the range of origami artists who post their instructions for sale, and hope to get contributions for sale from multiple origami societies (including, of course, OrigamiUSA, which has a nice collection of out-of-print publications that could potentially be considered for republication in electronic format—discussions are ongoing).

OrigamiUSA's digital download store is the first of its kind focused on sales of electronic origami products, but there is no question that it won't be the last. The site DigitalOrigami.com (host of the Origami-L mailing list) has a download store in development, and we expect that others may very well set up their own download store as well. To which we say: the more, the merrier! OrigamiUSA seeks no exclusivity on download sales, and having multiple download stores provides a laboratory for trying different marketing models and features. The ultimate beneficiaries of these stores will be, we think, the origami community: sellers, artists, buyers, practitioners. The mission of OrigamiUSA is to share the joy of paper folding, preserve its history, nurture its growth, bring people together and encourage community among paper folders. We hope and believe that the download store of The Origami Source will be yet another piece of achieving this goal.

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