BOSTON — The Internet threatens to turn a centuries-old tradition of money minting on its head.
Since at least the Middle Ages, kings and governments made money by turning bullion into coins. They charged a little more for the coins they sold than the bullion they bought to make the coins.
That fractional difference is called "seigniorage."
Today, the United States Treasury earns more than $20 billion a year in seigniorage - a charge initially paid by banks and eventually consumers.
But if new types of nongovernment Internet-based currencies gain acceptance, online consumers may get paid to use them.
Call it seigniorage in reverse.
"You may be paid 2 or 3 or 5 percent" of a transaction, says Bill Melton, an online payment pioneer and chief executive of CyberCash in Reston, Va.
That's because sponsors of new online currencies may earn more in rebates for pointing consumers to merchants that accept digital dollars.
Already, some online companies are paying consumers to surf particular Web sites or have their Web browsers display certain advertising.
Internet payment experts predict more such ventures as online merchants seek something more valuable to consumers than their cash: their time.
"Whoever controls where those eyeballs go controls the big end of the stick," says Nancy Goldberg, executive vice president of CyberCash.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society