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Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, is putting his money where his mouth is-or more accurately, he’s asking us to put our money where his mouth is.

McCloud is a long-time advocate of micropayments as an alternative means of supporting the production and distribution of Web content. This summer, he joined forces with a new company, BitPass, to test the viability of this economic model by charging consumers a quarter to access each installment of his intriguing Web comic, called “The Right Number.” McCloud’s efforts have re-opened a decade-long debate about micropayments, sparking heated exchanges on many of the mailing lists, webzines, and blogs that digitally oriented people frequent.

Is “The Right Number” worth a quarter? You bet! Its zoom-in interface, which embeds images within images, is ideally suited to McCloud’s story about a mathematician who becomes obsessed with the idea that people who have nearly identical telephone numbers share other traits. The 25 cents is not a one time access fee, but rather allows you many repeat visits and the ability to download the comic onto your hard drive. Considering how many comics McCloud has given away on his home page for free through the years, I am more than happy to give him my quarter.

So why has McCloud’s move sparked so much controversy? Because he wants to charge a quarter-on the Internet! Credit card transaction costs can range as high as $1.50, making it hard to charge small amounts for online content.

The point of micropayments is to create a system that allows people to buy and sell content online for far less. BitPass promises that it can facilitate transactions for prices lower than any previous micropayment system on the market, ultimately getting down to a few pennies-you can now buy a “dime novel” for a dime. Subscribers go to the BitPass home page and enter their credit card information one time to buy the digital equivalent of a phone card, which can be used quickly and easily with any affiliated vendor.

McCloud argues that a micropayment system would allow media producers (everybody from authors and recording artists to independent game designers and Web comics artists) to sell content directly to the consumers. This would cut out many layers of middle folk and thus allow the final price to the consumer to better reflect the lowered costs of production and distribution in the digital environment. Such a system helps not only consumers, who can sample from a range of different media producers without being locked into a subscription, but also artists, who can collect a reasonable return on their work.

McCloud’s supporters see “The Right Number” and BitPass as the long-heralded arrival of a viable micropayment system. Micropayment critics, however, are echoing online columnist Clay Shirky’s assertion that “micropayments are an idea whose time has gone.”

Shirky insists that earlier experiments with micropayments have failed, and new ones will continue to fail, because micropayments place unnecessary demands on consumers. Micropayments, he argues, “waste the users’ mental effort in order to conserve cheap resources, by creating many tiny, unpredictable transactions.” Although written in 2000, his column is gaining new life among bloggers and discussion list participants. Many micropayment critics act as if Shirky’s critique had pre-emptively trumped any future experiments in this area. Yet Shirky was actually criticizing an old model of what micropayments might look like.

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