Turning Browsers into Tip Jars: Interview with Copper’s Scott Fryxell


I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a button in my browser.

Mark my words: Copper could make huge waves in the coming tsunami of Internet patronage.

In the business of being creative, we are clearly moving away from a system of exploiting copyright, toward more direct fan-to-creator patronage. Internet-enabled “tip jars” like Flattr enable new, easy ways to directly support creators via tips.

What sets newcomer Copper apart is its focus on transparency, anonymity and utility. Quickly install the Copper browser button, and a little cents sign will appear in one’s toolbar. When you arrive at a page with content that inspires you, one need only click the browser button, and enter a tip amount or confirm their default tip. The platform then finds and pays the author, who can claim their anonymous tips with a quick sign-in to the Copper website.

The site itself has a clean, accessible and elegant UI showcasing a great balance of functionality and form. Copper has nailed a killer look and feel right out of the gate — no small feat. But the most exciting part is what it can do for creators.

Hot off an impressive demo at SF Music Tech 2013, I spoke with founder Scott Fryxell about how Copper came to be, where it’s at now, and its bright future ahead.


Copper founder Scott Fryxell.

How long have you been working on Copper for?

Scott Fryxell: Three years. It’s been a journey. You gotta think through this stuff, it’s pretty gnarly figuring out how to pull this off. We’re still babes in the woods but I feel pretty good about where the product is at.

Where is it at? Beta? Public launch?

All those terms are nerd terms, they don’t really matter in the sense of the app. It works right now, but we’re not actively charging people’s credit cards yet. When we’re a real company is when I write the first check. We’re basically gearing up for that.

Could you tell me a bit about what drove you to create Copper?

I was working at Listen which ended up being Rhapsody music player, which RealNetworks had for a while. I did a contract job for them for a year and it was to pay royalties to artists. They had in escrow millions of dollars that had been there for almost ten years, and they hadn’t paid a single artist yet. I came in, and our job was to work out the publishing rights part of all this. It was there that I realized it was just a huge mess. I saw it up close and personal for a long time.

At one point they brought in a consultant, and she was rad — and we’re asking her all these nerd questions like, “How does this thing work? Why is this so hard? This doesn’t make any sense!” And she said, “You guys gotta learn the deal. In the ’20s, the mob took over the music industry. On purpose, they built it so they could launder money. It’s a system where you put money in and its purposefully obfuscated so you don’t know how it’s going to come out.”

That’s when I realized how fucked the industry was, that’s when I got in on it. It seemed like a problem you should be able to solve with the Internet.

So, the real magic trick going on in Copper is that you have automated the process of finding content authors and getting them paid. Can you explain how that process works?

Every time you tip a page, we spider it. Copper integrates with nine providers [of OAuth data] — Facebook, Soundcloud, Vimeo, YouTube, etcetera. If you sign up with one of those accounts and you get tipped, I automatically know who you are and we can contact you that way.

If the page author can’t be found in one of those domains, we then spider the page and look for an “author” tag — the little HTML5 tag that sits in the head of your document. It’s supposed to signify who created the content. If that’s there and it points to a person, we consider that person the author of the page.

The next thing we spider for is “Follow me on Twitter” and “Follow me on Facebook” or whatever, and then we can contact you through one of those. Then we can message you via those accounts and tell you that you have tips. You sign up with that Facebook or Twitter account and we say, “hey, there’s your page.”

Right now our robots can figure out who someone is 75% of the time, so that other 25% will require a human being. That percentage will just go up. What we’ll do then is we might go to their page and send them an email — semi-automated. It’s a pretty fun job finding people and giving them money.

Right now you can tip any URL. So if it’s a page, you can tip it. You can’t tip a file, but basically any page on the web you can tip. We do the work of finding the author. If we can’t find them, we just refund the money.

Tipping through Copper is anonymous… I can’t see who’s tipping me, and the people I tip can’t see my identity. That seems like an important conscious decision.

That was the nugget. That was the moment when I realized I had an idea, when I realized, “these tips need to be anonymous”.

I had a therapist tell me once that people don’t like being socially burdened by your gratitude. And I realized that this is one thing that the labels handle really well — they separate the artist from the fan so that the interaction can be about taking the money so you can have a good time.

The anonymity is kind of critical for me. One of the decisions that got real difficult when we were starting to talk about this was “What if the fan wants to talk to the artist about stuff? What if the artist wants to spam all his fans?” It can get really gnarly when communication is involved. The realization I had was, “Oh, this involves money and neither side in this transaction should be at risk, or feel like when they click that ‘tip’ button, that there’s any blowback.”

It’s kind of counterintuitive and goes against the whole social media thing, but for me it’s the crux of the service.

That’s interesting, because that accurately describes my experience being tipped on Copper. When I got my first tip, I was like, “What do I do to reciprocate? If I don’t reciprocate, will the person who tipped me be put off?” And you make it so I don’t have to worry about any of that.

Right. In a way, it’s like, “This is the world saying you did a good job.” Other people have realized tipping the Sierra club, for example — people want to give to organizations but often if you give money to the Sierra club, you have to give your email now, and they’ll spam you for years trying to get more money out of you.

So when someone clicks that button I don’t ever want them to worry about blowback. And when the artist collects that money I want them to think, “This is for me as an artist” and not as somebody’s kid or somebody’s friend. I want the association to be around being professional.

Do you think the freedom of anonymity is a growing trend, in part as a reaction to the pervasiveness of social networks like Facebook in our daily lives?

New technology comes up, we hang out with it for a while, and we realize there are some social norms around privacy — not privacy so much but around separating ourselves from the people we interact with. I think we’re just figuring it out.

I was with the UI designer the other night, and he said, “When Facebook came out, everyone was just posting anything they sort of liked. Look, I like this, I like this too.” We were vomiting the stuff we liked. And he noticed in the last few years people have started being discerning about what they post to their news feed. We’re all becoming better curators.

What would be your pitch to a creative professional as to why they should use Copper?

It’s the simplest thing we could think of that gets the artist the most amount of money as transparently as we could think to make it. We don’t take shortcuts, we don’t track anybody’s data. We want to be a hammer — we want to be a “getting artists paid” hammer. That’s all we do. That’s our focus. We don’t have to get in the way of the way you create your work.

One of the core topics I explore on this blog is the cultural and economic transition from exploitation to patronage. Copper seems to be a possible leader in that transition.

In my secret, evil heart, this is about feeding the creative commons too. If you receive your revenue based on a system of patronage, you then become more willing to just give your stuff away. If your revenue is coming from the tips, then giving it away helps you get more tips.

Visit Copper.is by following this link and stay tuned to Mediapocalypse for word on the latest trends in creative patronage.