When we were launching Real Baptists, best-selling author Stephen King was serializing The Plant online—and relying on the honor system.

“The Baptist Center for Ethics?” the stranger invariably clarifies. “I didn’t know Baptists had any ethics.” Snicker snicker. Hee hee. We’ve heard that wisecrack more times than we can remember.

Let’s skip the history that makes that remark allegedly funny and embrace those “contrasting” ideas: Baptists and ethics. A few years ago, BCE started testing that tandem in a relevant and practical arena: online Bible study curriculum.

In July 2000, BCE launched its first online curriculum, Real Baptists: Spotlighting Changes in the Baptist Faith and Message. In November of that year, we released Five Lessons for Advent. In August 2001, we made Questions Jesus Asked available online. Genesis: The Creation of Relationships appeared on the Web later that year.

Last week, BCE announced the availability of its fifth online product: Courageous Churches, a 13-lesson Sunday School curriculum. Almost 500 people have downloaded a sample lesson, while others have already ordered and received their material.

We take it as a good sign that, to date, no one has remarked, “I didn’t know churches were courageous.”

In making curriculum available online, BCE has relied on the honor system. Users simply indicate how many copies they wish to make from the original we send via e-mail. The user is charged or billed based on the amount of copies indicated, and that’s the end of it. We trust folks to copy within the limits they choose.

BCE hasn’t gone this road alone, however. When we were launching Real Baptists, best-selling author Stephen King was serializing The Plant online—and relying on the honor system.

The master of horror scared publishers and readers into thinking about ethics in an electronic world. He posted the first installment of The Plant to his Web site on July 24, 2000, and asked those who downloaded it to pay $1 via credit card, check or money order. He also asked them not to copy it at will.

King wrote on his site, “If you pay, the story rolls. If you don’t, the story folds.” If more than 25 percent of the readers neglected to pay, King said he would not finish the story.
On July 25, King wrote on his Web site: “The confirmed rate of payment by credit card is very strong—75 percent at least. When the dust settles, Marsha [King’s assistant] and I are hoping—quite reasonably, we think—for a pay-through rate of 85-90%.”

King’s experiment had the publishing industry buzzing over its future and readers logging opinions on discussion forums. “I sincerely hope the public responds to this bold step,” wrote one discussant. “An honor system should work if the prices are reasonable.”

One week into the experiment, King told his Web readers: “There’s certainly no problem with the pay-through. If we’ve proved nothing else, we’ve proved that the guy who shops for entertainment on the Net can be as honest as the one in a retail bricks-and-mortar store.”

But the pay-through rate started skidding downhill, and when King posted his fourth installment, only 46 percent of the downloaders paid for it, making the other 54 percent, essentially, freeloaders.

In early November 2000, King announced he was chopping The Plant down. At King’s download page, one now reads: “The Plant has furled its leaves for the time being. To be notified when The Plant comes back online with new installments, please join the mailing list.”

It was almost poetic that the king of horror asked his fans to embrace an honor code. Of course, some folks apparently find it humorous that BCE asks its constituents to do the same.

The honor code has two parts. One part consists of paying for material received; the other consists of users making only the amount of copies they’ve indicated.

As for the second part, we don’t, and can’t, monitor people’s copying habits. Only those of you who use the curriculum know how well that part of the honor system works.

And as for the first, when we launched EthicsDaily.com, we began taking credit card orders for curriculum. Our monthly round of “past due” invoices has been cut in half. Furthermore, of the past due invoices we do have, roughly half are for online curriculum, whereas the others come from print curriculum or books people have “purchased” from our booth at various assemblies.

What does all this mean? After digesting statistics, trends and markets, we’re not sure.
Here’s what it might mean, however:

  • The quip about Baptists and ethics isn’t any funnier.
  • BCE’s constituents will pay with a credit card.
  • Some of BCE’s constituents will pay without one.
  • Stephen King should buy an ad at EthicsDaily.com.

Thanks for being downloaders, not freeloaders, and for exploring the online world with us.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director for EthicsDaily.com.

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