MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Crowd-funding began as a way to support the arts on the Internet. Musicians, filmmakers, and other artists could go online to pitch a new project in hopes that thousands would give small amounts. Now the idea has expanded to entrepreneurs. On Kickstarter, the largest crowd-funding site, a handful have raised millions of dollars more than they'd expected by selling products they haven't made yet.
But as KQED's Aarti Shahani reports, financial backers have no clear way of getting a refund if and when these entrepreneurs fail to deliver.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Julie Uhrman loves playing video games the old-fashioned way, in front of the TV. While sales of consoles like the Nintendo Wii are down, Uhrman believes TV games are not some retro thing of the past. She cites her four-year-old as proof. One day a controller was lying on the table.
JULIE UHRMAN: And then to see my daughter pick up the controller and say, Show me how to do this, just meant that this is something that's going to be around for a really long time. And I...
SHAHANI: You got excited when you saw your daughter glued to the TV?
UHRMAN: Yes. I'm sure my daughter's preschool won't like that.
SHAHANI: Kickstarter liked it, a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF OUYA THEME MUSIC)
SHAHANI: In July, Uhrman released her online video promo for a game console she calls Ouya.
(SOUNDBITE OF OUYA THEME MUSIC)
SHAHANI: The first letter O stands for open source. Unlike the Nintendo Wii, it's open for developers in the Android operating system to make games and...
UHRMAN: It's open for hackers that want to tweak the box and make it their own.
SHAHANI: Uhrman raises an eyebrow and flashes a mischievous smile about this big undertaking.
UHRMAN: Effectively we're trying to disrupt an established industry. It takes a lot of guts and courage..
SHAHANI: Uhrman asked for $950 thousand - much more than the average project. A month later, her Kickstarter campaign closed with $8.6 million. About 57 thousand backers expect an Ouya console by next March.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)
SHAHANI: I visit Uhrman in San Francisco, where she's meeting with a dozen designers to hash out Ouya's boomerang-shaped controller. During a break, I ask her: Would you have to give money back to your backers, if you weren't able to deliver?
Uhrman takes a deep breath and pauses before answering.
UHRMAN: Technically from the Kickstarter perspective, I actually don't know the answer to that. But from a doing the right thing perspective, we will treat our backers, you know, the best possible way.
TIFFANY SPENCER: And that's a Kickstarter policy question, I think.
UHRMAN: Yeah, I don't know the answer.
SHAHANI: That's Uhrman's PR agent Tiffany Spencer saying it's a Kickstarter policy question. So I call Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler. If Julie Uhrman is not able to deliver the consoles, then does Kickstarter get involved?
YANCEY STRICKLER: You know, that would be new ground. I don't know. I mean I - no. I don't think that we would. But certainly the kind of thing you're talking about is not a bridge that has been crossed yet. Someday it will. And you know, I think if something did go awry, it would be - it wouldn't be my favorite day.
SHAHANI: When Kickstarter launched three years back, it was primarily fans giving money to little-known artists. Today, the most lucrative projects are goods that customers pre-order from would-be merchants. Comments on Kickstarter campaign pages indicate that backers expect product delays.
STRICKLER: By creating a system where it's just a series of open and direct exchanges, between people with ideas and projects and people interested in supporting them, you have everyone on the same page and everyone understanding what's going on.
SHAHANI: Almost everyone. One entrepreneur who raised $10 million to build a Smartwatch that streams e-mail and text messages just missed his first delivery deadline. One of his backers demanded a refund, to no avail.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)
PROFESSOR DAVID BARNETT: (Rapping) Hit it. Huh-uh. What, huh...
STRICKLER: Another entrepreneur, David Barnett, released a Kickstarter video where he bounces and steps to raise money for PopSockets, a snazzy iPhone case with a headphone cord wrap.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)
BARNETT: Did you see that? My cord didn't even get tangled. And with all that dancing.
STRICKLER: A year later, still no PopSockets and the money has all gone in fees to prospective manufacturers and lawyers. Barnett - whose day job is philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder - decided to pay back 40 of his 500 backers.
BARNETT: Oh, I think it sets a bad precedent. Once I did that, I could tell that it started creating the impression in some of my backers that they had purchased an item. And I think as Kickstarter grows, there's more and more of an impression that it's just a big store for people to go get deals.
STRICKLER: That's the conflict at the heart of Kickstarter. While company policy says creators have to give refunds on failed projects, the website doesn't have a mechanism to do it. Barnett used PayPal.com to process $1300 in refunds.
As entrepreneurs come online, Kickstarter and hundreds of similar platforms will have to sort out if each transaction is a donation or a purchase.
For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco.