Please Kill Non-Commercial Free Culture

The death of copyright is not as radical as it appears. It is not necessary to have copyright to have effective business models. The publishing industry already makes a lot of money this way – Penguin Books, for example, does quite a lot of business from classics by very famous authors such as Jane Austin, Chaucer, and William Shakespeare – all authors whose work is out of copyright.

Unfortunately for now, we are stuck with copyright. The temporary remedy is to use a ‘Free License’ such as those coming out of Creative Commons. However “free licenses” are not a cure, they merely diminish the symptoms and should be considered a temporary hack, and hacks sometimes diminish our need to address the real problem.

Copyright is the problem, free licenses are the hack. The free culture movement actually avoids identifying and addressing the real problem because they are focused on advocating a temporary solution.

Additionally some free licenses are extremely bad hacks. To cure us of copyright, new economies must evolve from open content to displace closed-copyright models before copyright itself will be seen as hampering business. Then copyright might go away. Howeve,r many free licenses have a specific “non-commercial” clause which means that free culture works cannot participate in emerging free culture economies. Free culture is, in a way, working against its own aims by implementing ’free’ licenses with Non-Commercial clauses.

Someone please kill NC – then copyright itself.

Why ISBN does not work

ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number”. It is a 13 digit number that identifies your book. No two ISBN numbers are the same and they usually appear on your book in numeric form and as a bar code. Generally, you buy ISBN numbers and each country manages this slightly differently. Some countries require you to be a publisher before you can order an ISBN. In the USA, I believe, you buy them in blocks of 10, whereas in New Zealand you just apply for them – they give them away.

If you wish to distribute a book through established book channels then you mostly need an ISBN. Book shops such as Barnes & Noble or your local book shop require ISBN so they can track, sell and order stock (books). Most online retailers of any size also require this – Amazon, for example, require an ISBN if you wish to sell through their channels. However, some online channels do not require ISBN – lulu.com for example.

The big problem with ISBN is that you need a new ISBN for every new edition. So if you release a book and then edit it and re-release it you need two ISBN numbers. This can take a long time to order and process and it can be expensive (depending on how you get your ISBN).

This is not the real issue. Admin takes a long time, we are all used to that. But sometimes an administrative system gets built to work for a certain model and when that model changes, then things stop making sense.

ISBN works well in a publishing world where books take years to produce and the products are identifiable as distinct bodies of work. However, in the world of Booki, this is not the typical process. For example, when working with a Book Sprint team, we typically write and release a book in 5 days. You can register the ISBN before the event, no problem. However, quite often after the event we may ‘release’ a new version of the book  – 5, 10, 15 times in one day. Some of these releases may be substantial revisions. This quite clearly does not sit neatly with the slow ISBN process. Even with a more conservative development cycle for a ‘Booki book’ the implication is clear – ISBN expects content to be static, it does not expect books to ‘live’.

Its a real problem for free content and content that exists in an environment where ongoing contributions to the source are encouraged. If you manage a book like this in Booki and you wish to distribute the book through traditional distribution channels, then there is a point where you must ‘freeze’ the content and release the ‘snapshot’. This is not altogether satisfying since then you must either make the book ‘die’ for a time so the printed work and the source remain equal, or you must acknowledge that the paper version is merely a soon-to-be-outdated archive.

Letting content die, or temporarily freezing contributions, can kill a book, which is not a very desirable result considering it often takes a lot of work soliciting ongoing contributions in the first place. The alternative, accepting that the printed book is an archive, is probably not going to make many distributors very happy since you are asking them to sell an out-of-date product (although this is conjecture since I have never tried this).

My answer to this dilemma is to actually walk away from traditional distribution channels. Free content should travel freely across media and in front of the eyes (and ears in the case of audio books) of whoever wants it and in whatever form they want it. Let the content go, don’t constrain it to these traditional channels.

Typically these channels are pursued however for ‘legacy’ reasons. Some you can’t escape – if you are an academic you live off ISBN and the education system will be slow to change that. However, if it’s a business model you are after, then don’t make the mistake of thinking that selling books is the only way to go… new models are emerging – get people to pay you to write the content, for example. One such successful example of this is the Rural Design Collective who successfully raised $2000 (US) via crowdsourcing on Kickstarter.)

So there are alternatives. ISBN is blocking the way, but it’s probably about time to start believing there are better ways….

 

Importing Archive.org Books with Booki

For some months, Booki has been able to import Archive.org books. This development was sponsored by Archive.org. When importing a book, Booki requests an ePub from Archive.org, converts this to the ‘native file format’ (booki-zip) and loads this into the Booki database. It is then possible to export the same book back into an ePub file.

So, if Booki can import an Archive.org ePub and then export it as ePub what is the point? Seems like Booki is an unnecessary conduit. Well, one point is that with Booki you can export the book into multiple formats – such as book-formatted PDF. That means you can take any of those luscious out-of-copyright books, import them into Booki and make real books from them. This is pretty exciting when you see just how lovely some of these books are. Take for example the copy of Cinderella in the American Libraries section of Archive.org.

Cinderella original edition
Cinderella Edward Dalziel, 1865

This version of Cinderella is out-of-copyright and you can republish as you like. This is a pretty exciting prospect, opening the door for anyone to start their own publishing house importing content from Booki, styling, and exporting to print-formatted-PDF for printing.

However, there are a few steps that you may need to go through first, and this is the real reason why we have implemented importing from Archive.org. All the books in the Archive.org libraries have been created using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanning. The process involves loading books onto book scanners and scanning each page.

Archive.org Book Scanner.

However, scanning creates a certain amount of errors. OCR doesn’t render all text correctly and cannot tell the difference between text on a page and text in an image. Hence images with embedded text are usually split up, with the text elements saved as plain text and the surrounding image saved as multiple smaller images. So the OCR-scanned books need proofing and the import feature in Booki enables proofing of OCR scanned books from Archive.org. This means that teams can get together remotely, choose a selection of Archive.org books, and get to work improving them.

While this is all working, we want to build a tighter workflow and a few extra tools to assist the proofing process (if you are a developer familiar with Python and interested in helping us with this good cause then let us know). Douglas Bagnall (Booki/Objavi developer) recently extended the import functionality so that all the metadata imported from Archive.org is preserved. This opens the door to utilising this information to assist proofing of the content – we hope, for example, to eventually be able to show the complete digital image of the original scan, before it was reduced to OCR, alongside the OCR pages to assist proofing. Watch this space!

Incidentally, Booki can import any ePub, so this means that the way is open for the same proofing process to be applied to other OCR scanning projects. If you have a project like this then let us know, maybe we can help.

Bookimobile takes to the road

Last week the new Bookimobile took to the road. It’s a van that has everything inside to produce books, a mobile book production lab and powered by Booki!

Bookimobile in Barcelona

The van is a VW T4 and has the following equipment:

Fastback 15XS Binder
Ideal electric paper guillotine
Samsung 2851 ND duplex black and white laser printer + ink
IP4000 color inkjet
Heaps of paper (A4)
Card for covers
Scissors, rulers, paper knives, cutting boards etc
Power cables, extension boards etc

With all this, you can make books!

The idea is based on the Internet Archives Book Mobile. We pretty much stole the idea from them (we asked first 😉 and loaded the van with everything needed to make books and drove it on its first outing 2000km from Berlin to Barcelona. It was a long haul.

The process of making the books takes some time to refine but we learned a tremendous amount. In short, the process runs like this:

  1. create a book in Booki (we used existing books)
  2. output A5 book-formatted PDF from Booki
  3. print the PDF as a ‘booklet’ using the duplex (for double-sided printing) printer
  4. cut the book to size using the paper cutter
  5. bind the spine using the Fastback 15XS
  6. print the cover
  7. work out where to crease the spine to wrap nicely around the contents
  8. add the cover to the contents (it adheres with the binding spines we use for the fastback)
  9. trim the book nice and tight with the cutter

That’s it! Once printed, the procedure takes about 5 minutes and the total cost for a 100-page book is less than a Euro. The books look great!

Freshly cut book

The Bookimobile is designed to take book production to the world. With Booki and the equipment, it’s possible to go to schools, events, festivals, streets and make free books…

Booki User Guide

We will document more of this shortly on the blog and talk more about the Bookimobile and the process of producing books. We will also work on Booki to help the production of books using home or office duplex printers.

The Bookimobile is sponsored by Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, Mozilla, iCommons, CiviCRM and the Internet Archive. Many thanks to these organisations for making this possible.

The Book as Motivator

It is amazing what a great motivator it is to say to anyone, “you will be part of making a book.”

It sounds exciting. It is! It has more power than saying, “you will be part of making a PDF or web page.” Although… that’s actually what we are doing, creating it via a website interface, it is not nearly as magical. We are making a PDF that we send to a printer. Or we are making an EPUB/ebook or series of templated-HTML pages… etc… but that reality contains no magic. As Arthur C Clarke once said:  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Enabling people to produce that magic themselves is very powerful. We have come to think of the book production process as something only publishers can do. However, we now have that magic in our own hands, enabled by a wonderful array of technologies such as digital file formats, digital networks, the web, standards, protocols, rapid binding technologies, cheap and fast printing, and online book production platforms. Each part of this technology chain might be familiar enough to us that we don’t think of them as magical but we put them together and something magic happens.

The invitation to make a book is a very important motivator – but don’t take my word for it, here are some nice quotes from some participants of collaborative book projects I have been involved in:

"This week has been amazing! ... I know I did NOT expect to have a book in print within the week!... Four books in one week, from 29 people. I still can't believe it."
 --from http://linuxgrandma.blogspot.com/2011/10/new-kde-book-beginning-kde-development.html
"Last week I wrote a book! Three of them, actually :) ... it was a (very!) collaborative effort. I’m exhausted, as I said, but also inspired...and I’m incredibly proud of what we produced. It would be a respectable outcome from several weeks of work, and we managed it in barely three days."
 --from http://blog.nerdchic.net/archives/688/
"I had no idea when the week started that we were going to write a book in a week, nor that it was possible to do that."
 --from http://www.maploser.com/tag/floss-manuals/

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the speed of making a book that generates this feeling of magic. The rise in popularity of print-on-demand illustrates that people love to make books even if it costs them more for a book ẃhich is sometimes of a lower print quality than mass-produced books. But that’s not the point either. The point is that it is their book, one they participated in producing. That is the magic and the motivation and the faster the book is produced the stronger that motivation.

Of course, what people are actually doing is not ‘producing books.’ They are collaborating in a very special way to produce knowledge and culture, a way that is almost egoless, amazingly energising, and can only occur because of free culture. That is what is really magical and the idea of producing a book is a great motivator to getting us there.

[Produced somewhere around 2010/2011]