What is a Free Book?

To get the rewards of collaboration and reuse, content must be easily shared and that means content must be free. What is ‘free content’?

What is ‘free content’?

Since 2001, there has been a movement called Creative Commons [ see https://creativecommons.org ] which is the latest in a long line of projects to produce copyright licenses that allow the copyright holder more nuanced control over the rights reserved and conferred. The ‘standard’ and default copyright license is ‘all rights reserved’. That means no one can do anything with your content without your permission. That license, for example, makes criminals out of students that photocopy chapters for their personal use. It is actually more complicated than that, as each country has its own specific laws governing copyright. However, copyright law for all countries has the same general intention – to stop anyone other than the copyright holder from reusing the copyrighted work without permission.

Creative Commons gives more control over the rights the copyright holder transfers to others. For example, the Creative Commons Non-Derivative licenses allow others to copy the work legally but not to change it. The Creative Commons Share-Alike license allows anyone to reuse and change the content, as long as they transfer the same right to others who utilise the derivative work

‘Free content’ is a condition of reuse and collaboration. It is extremely hard to work collaboratively within a constrained copyright environment and almost impossible to reuse such content. So is making content free simply a matter of choosing a Creative Commons license? No, it is not. To understand why we can start by looking at the requirements of software freedom as outlined by the Free Software Foundation:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The sub-sector which labels itself ‘Open Publishing,’ while advocating Free Culture as the way forward for publishing, largely doesn’t seem to abide by these kinds of freedoms, especially with regard to making the source available for change, which is stated as a precondition for two of the above ie. “Access to the source code is a precondition….”.

‘Open’ mostly means ‘free to distribute’ in the open publishing world. It does not mean or imply the right to have access to the editable sources, nor does it mean the right to fork. The reluctance to embrace these freedoms is closely related to the fear of losing control of a book and the fear of ‘poor quality’ creeping in. Hence open production seems pretty untenable for the majority of the open publishing world.

If it is going to differentiate itself from merely ‘open distribution,’ ‘Open Publishing’ must address these issues. It might be good to develop a similar ‘Four Freedoms’ manifesto for free books. It is important to do this because so far we have got it wrong: Creative Commons licenses, for example, do not require the source to be available. However, freedom is not just about licenses and we shouldn’t rely on others to define free culture for us: we must generate a culture where we acknowledge and uphold the values and consequences of free content. If we don’t do so, we will not be able to take advantage of the immense value Free Culture really offers.

Books should be free, they should always be available to be used, transformed into other formats (an especially necessary freedom in this day of multiple ebook readers), re-used, translated, remixed – whatever you want. Books should not die on the shelves, or as a PDF-only release, or in an archive.

In the discourse of free culture, however, the discussion of what constitutes a free book pretty much starts and ends at the license. Is this a free book? Does it have a Creative Commons (or similar?) license? Yes? Then it is a free book. Solved.

We need a culture that embraces the values and consequences of free content, not a culture that worships licenses.

A free license does not mean that a book is free. The following are common strategies for copyright protection that are exercised by producers of ‘freely licensed content’:

Not-free free license

A not-free book in this context uses a license that appears free but isn’t really. Licenses like the Free Documentation License and those Creative Commons licenses that have Non-Commercial (NC) or No-Derivative (ND) conditions are not free. I don’t want to get into this here, as it is a lengthy and (in my opinion) boring conversation, but the bottom line for me is, can you use this book in any way you want? If the answer is no, it’s a not-free book.

Ambiguously not-free

Many publishers use two licenses for their content. Strange but true. They use a standard copyright ‘all rights reserved’ license and something like a Creative Commons license, or sometimes there is just confusing and conflicting information. If you want an example, take a look at page vi of the following Ubuntu manual

It states :   This book is published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 license

Sounds good but it is soon followed by a lengthy ‘go away’ clause that reads :

This publication is protected by copyright, and permission must be obtained from the publisher prior to any prohibited reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, or transmission in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or likewise unless permitted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

That is, in my opinion, confusing to most readers. CC-BY-SA is one of the most-free licenses but the clause reads like a standard ‘all rights reserved’ (proprietary) license and would send off the same signals to the average reader ie. go away and don’t even bother to try and do something with this book (other than reading it). This is not-free.

Practically not-free

This is the worst type of not-freedom as it is essentially a trick to appear free while actually employing a mechanical form of copyright protection. Many books might use very good free licenses and use very bold, unambiguous and clear license statements. So, does this make it free? Well, no. The reason is that in order for something to be re-used it needs to first be in a state that enables its re-use. For example, PDF is not a good re-usable format. Printed books are also not a good re-usable format. Both of these formats allow content to be copied but this is not the same as re-used. This kind of trick is often used by publishers wanting to gain currency and favour in the Free Culture or Open Educational Resources sectors. To them, we can only say : WE NEED THE SOURCE.

Many otherwise very good free content fails to even offer the content in formats that can be easily transformed. ‘Offering the source’ would allow readers to create other formats. One very good example is the Theory On Demand series (which is freely downloadable here ) which only offers PDF and online FLASH player versions of the books: you cannot get the sources so you cannot create EPUBs for your iPad or Mobi for your kindle.

However if ‘free’ means that only copying is allowed then it is a poor freedom to have. We want to be able to change books, convert them to other formats, translate them, improve them – as free licenses suggest we can. What if I want to change the contents of a book how do I do it? If I have to first reproduce the book by manually typing out 40,000 words then the book is practically not-free. It is for this reason that free culture licenses should mandate that books (must be specified as this clause is not applicable to all media) must provide the source somewhere (online is suffice) in plain text or other standardised popular format. Currently, most free licenses do not require this, so many books can avoid this issue while still calling themselves free.

A good analogy exists here with free software. For example, a PDF is essentially a binary and distributing a PDF and calling it ‘free’ is like distributing a software binary and calling it free. Free software is aware of this catch and hence for a software to be free you must be able to access the source code. You have not only the right to change free software but the means to change it. The same understanding should exist for books. Can you get access to the content so you can change it easily? If the answer is no, then it is not a free/open book.

Further to this, I would argue that all books must make it known through the appendices, colophon, or in the body of the text itself, where the original raw sources can be found.

On this topic, Creative Commons licenses are actually ill-equipped to tackle this issue. The source of books should be available for anyone to access so they can easily work with the book, and if we must (yawn) live in a world of copyright, then the license should at least require that the book source is available. Currently, Creative Commons licenses do not require this, whereas the General Public License (and others) do.

Access to the editable source of a book is a pre-condition for a free book.

Not-free mandate

Lastly, let’s re-examine the culture of proprietorship. In the world of software, there are two main types of software – free/open and proprietary. The former is licensed with open licenses enabling reuse and alteration etc and the later licensed under closed all-rights-reserved copyright licenses and complicated end-user agreements. Suffice to say that the effect of proprietary software is that you can’t mess with it.

However, free software can also suffer from cultural proprietorship regardless of the license used. Essentially if you do not feel that you have the mandate to change something then you are not empowered to change it. This can often be the consequence of the culture of a free software project – many of which are not open cultures by any means. Mostly they are male-dominated meritocracies which intimidate many would-be contributors.

The same scenario can exist for book production regardless of the license being used. In fact, books have a heavy cultural legacy of proprietorship that we must work hard to overcome. Books are made by “authors” and it is difficult to challenge the domain of the author even if the author is obviously not a single person. Evidence of collaboration in the production of a work is not the same as enabling an open mandate to change or fork (copy-and-change) a work. We must overcome this by celebrating the possibilities of forking and altering other people’s works. We do this by doing it. Without doing this – without actively participating and taking advantage of the riches that free culture production offers – we are maintaining the processes and values of proprietary (closed) culture.

[Produced somewhere around 2010/2011]

Google Summer of Code Book Binding Party

A few days ago, I facilitated the Google Summer of Code Book Sprint. We had already written one book last year in a 2-day sprint, so this year we updated that book and added a second. ‘Flip bits not burgers’ (the student guide) was written in just two days by a great team of experienced GSoC mentors. After writing the book in Booki, we output the text to the US 1/2 letter format (8.5 inches x 5.5 inches) which is the closest to the European A5. The book-formatted PDF produced by Objavi (the Booki publishing engine) looked fantastic so we printed the interior and I designed a cover in Inkscape (http://inkscape.org/) and printed the colour covers. We then cut all the content and had a binding party!

binding-copy

Google Summer of Code book binding party!

To bind, we used the Fastback 9 and the results looked fantastic. It was really good to write the book and then print and bind the book ourselves immediately after.

binding2-copy

Mentor & Org Admin Guide (right) and Students Guide.

The interior looked pretty cool too.

binding3-copy

Interior produced by Objavi in about 2 minutes.

Arctic Perspective Initiative

There are some interesting projects utilising Booki to create books. Some are groups, others individuals, some work with Book Sprints and rapid development strategies, others try the Book Slog… Of course, Booki being what it is means you can also help these projects ‘get written’ (or illustrated, edited, proofed etc) or you can also just open up the book-in-progress and watch it develop over time.

One project I want to highlight is the 3rd book in a series of 4 by API – the Arctic Perspective Initiative .

This project is a large collaborative effort made up of people from all walks of life from all parts of the globe. Many of those involved gathered for a conference in Dortmund (Germany) a few days ago to talk about the project and to also kick start a book on Arctic Technologies. This book is, of course, being created in Booki and you can follow its progress here (log in first).

API is, to quote from their website, :

“Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a non-profit, international group of individuals and organisations whose goal is to promote the creation of open authoring, communications and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. We aim to empower the North and Arctic peoples through open source technologies and applied education and training. By creating access to these technologies while promoting an open, shared network of communications and data, without a costly overhead, we can allow for further sustainable and continued development of culture, traditional knowledge, science, technology and education opportunities for peoples in the North and Arctic regions.”

API are using Booki as the centre for a collaborative process to create a book on Technology in the Arctic.

 

Book Sprint Textbooks…anyone?

My role as ‘an educator’ revolves around group processes – namely, Book Sprints. Essentially I facilitate groups of 5-10 people working together in one room over an intensive 3-5 days to produce a book. Zero to book in 5 days (or less). This process is known as a Book Sprint and although it is an uncommon practice, most people who ask for and participate in a Sprint see it as a Book Production methodology. However, I would argue that, in all circumstances, the collaborators walk away having learned a great deal about the subject they have just created a book about.

I also believe that this process can be used by students to write their own textbooks, learning what they write and passing the free textbook onto the next year’s students to improve. I am eagerly awaiting the first enlightened institution that would take this on, and I am sure they would be positively surprised by the results – both in the quality of books produced and by what the students learn in terms of content and collaboration.

Book Sprints utilise collaborative environments. The only Book Sprint (1) I know of before we did them (2) used word processing documents – passing these around via email between collaborators – and a wiki for collecting the articles. Part way through the process, they gathered in person to develop the outline in a one week intensive ‘Outline Sprint’ and then proceeded to collaborate via email and a wiki over a period of 4-6 months. After the material was complete, the group passed the documents through several editing stages. The process cut the standard industry timeline down by about 30-50%. Zero to book in 4-6 months is still pretty good in the publishing industry.

However, for FLOSS Manuals, 4-6 months was too long. We wanted to do it in 5 days and so we needed a quicker methodology and a better tool set. Wikis might come to your mind immediately as they did to us. However, we had already realised that wikis were not built with the right paradigm. Books are very structured and wikis are not. That is the essence of it – I don’t want to get into ‘future of the book’ discussions. Books can be many things, so I am talking here about what ‘most’ people mean by a book. A one piece cover, several hundred pages, table of contents, structured readable and comprehensive content, self-contained with very few references to other parts of the document, and careful use of outside references instead of a welter of back-and-forth hyperlinks. We built a system that could produce this kind of book – paper books – in a Book Sprint environment. Zero to book in 5 days – that leaves about 3 minutes at the end to produce book-formatted PDF ready to upload to a PoD service or send to the local printer. That is what we needed, and wikis don’t enable you to do that. So we hand rolled our own. The first generation was built on TWiki and we pushed it to its outer limits with extensions built by Aleksandar Erkalovic and a PDF renderer built by Luka Frelih. Now we are onto the second generation – Booki (a BOOK-wikI if you will). It does the same job as the first tool set, but does it better – it’s easier to use, more flexible, and it supports a greater number of possible output formats and types.

While Booki does a lot, and it’s hard to imagine a Book Sprint without it, there are limits to working digitally in a Book Sprint. Certainly, we also experience the highs of surprising networked collaboration. One Sprint (‘Introduction to the Command Line’) was written almost entirely remotely and written in 2 days (Mako Hill, FSF Board member and renowned hacker said it was the best book on its topic). However, there are also limits to digital media and digital networks. I believe that there is less knowledge passed through digital media communication channels when collaborating. I firmly believe this – other wise we would have all of our Book Sprints remote – it would cut down on logistics and costs. However text-based chat does not convey enough information, VOIP is terrible for more than 2 people at a time and even then I wonder at its real usefulness in intensive collaboration, and email is just too slow and the ‘unthreaded’ nature of email will soon drive you crazy in this kind of environment. Microblogging is as good as IRC in this instance – ie. barely useful. Sneaker networks are not only faster but more fluid and they enable better-shared understandings, quicker.

In addition, I find it is often good to push people out of the screen and into the book. Since we work fast in Sprints we sometimes realise we need to clean up structural issues. This often occurs when 2 or more people are working on content that needs to fit together – and it doesn’t. Often we print out the necessary chapters, sit on the floor, and (gasp) cut-and-paste the chapters into each other until they work. Same process as a digital text editor, just with a physical tool set – the result is that it gets better results quicker.

The end result of a Book Sprint is a book. That’s a great thing to have. However there is also a mandate to take care of, and content to take care of. How do you enable this content to live? Books do not live by licenses alone – they need help. They need the original collaborators to find the avenues to keep the content alive. One strategy is to maintain this content themselves although, despite good will, this seldom continues beyond some initial edits immediately after the Sprint ends. The original collaborators need to pass on the mandate to others and this is critical for the life of the book. As such I discourage the use of terms like ‘authors’ as this denotes legacies of ownership and does not encourage new contributors to take the mandate to improve the book. Instead, the strategies revolve around keeping the participation threshold low (minimising social filters, using open language, making Booki simpler and simpler to use) and welcoming in new contributions. We also welcome forking books. Take a book – make it your own whichever way you feel is best.

However occasionally Sprinters, caught up in the fervor of intensive production, often get worried about misappropriation or unethical use and erect barriers that do nothing to help and a lot to hurt. They ask themselves questions like ‘What if someone takes the content and makes money? What if contributors spam the book? What if someone changes the tone of the book? Could contributions ruin it?’ This is the ethical quandry put at the foot of freedom largely by the fears and protective necessities of the proprietary publishing industry, We all carry this a little bit and my response is always ‘let it go’. Let the content be free and you will be happily surprised by the results. The irony is that once sprinters are convinced of this idea they are left ‘fighting’ the default – standard attitudes towards publishing and authorship means it’s hard work to get people to uptake the freedoms of free content. Book Sprint collaborators (and free content developers in general) often need to put a lot of energy into reaching out to others to get them to take ownership of the material and make changes, but it can be done with the right approach. I am hoping soon we see will the integration of Book Sprints into curriculum to create and improve textbooks as another way to explicitly pass on the mandate to change,and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this strategy develop…

Notes:

(1) The idea of a Book Sprint as outlined in the article by Marco Zennaro et al was the brainchild of Tomas Krag

(2) Marco Zennaro, Enrique Canessa, Carlo Fonda, Martin Belcher, Rob Flickenger, “Book Sprint” in The International Journal of the Book (Melbourne, Australia, Common Ground Publishing, 2006) Vol 2 Number 4.

written by Adam Hyde, founder of FLOSS Manuals.

 

Book Design with CSS

Book creation is usually managed in multiple environments – the simplest toolchain consists of the writing and editing environment – usually a word processor – and the design environment – usually desktop publishing software such as Scribus or InDesign. The transition is time-consuming and ‘clunky’ and made worse if multiple text sources are to be combined in the design processes.

Additionally, this process means there are two sources for the text. Changes made to the text once the source is in the design environment usually have to be copied also into the word processing files if the integrity of that source is to be maintained, and vice versa.

It would be simpler if there was one environment that could be used for creating and editing AND for design. That is what we have created with Booki.

Booki enables content creation through a web interface. Chapters can be easily moved around and content can be easily modified through a very simple WYSIWYG interface. The design environment is also Booki and is web based, and we have developed a technology for creating book-formatted PDF using CSS.

The interface is simple to use – in the ‘export’ tab of any book you can paste CSS into the text field provided in the ‘Advanced Options’ press ‘export’ and a very short time later you have the book-formatted PDF complete with Table of Contents, numbering, headers, and margin control.

While the interface is easy to use, the tool does not ‘by itself’ create a good looking book. The secret to a good looking book is a well-defined stylesheet and time spent manually tweaking some ‘content’ elements in the WYSIWYG editor (paragraph breaks, placement of images).

To understand the relationship between CSS and the final result, there is no substitute for trial and error. Designers must first understand how a ‘web native’ technology – CSS – applies to page-based media (books). This paradigm appears simple but it requires a slight re-alignment of how book designers think about designing books, and to do this, designers must try the process and persevere until they succeed. After that initial success, things become easier.

Probably the best way to start is to take an existing book and look at the CSS, then change it and see what happens. Generating a PDF takes anywhere from half a minute to a few minutes, so this is a pretty quick method for seeing how CSS affects the layout of the book. For experimenting, first,  create an account in Booki  and then visit this page. On this page,  go to the ‘export’ tab and press the ‘Publish this book’ button. The PDF will be quickly generated – beware the ‘progress bar’ is rather fake… the PDF might be ready more quickly or slowly than the progress bar suggests.

Next, click on ‘Show Advanced Options’ scroll down and choose ‘Custom’ from the ‘CSS mode’ drop down menu. Now a text field will appear with the default CSS – the same CSS that was used for the design of the book you just created.

Now either change the CSS in the text box OR visit this site for help.

At the bottom of this page, you will find a link to the CSS used for the print version of the second edition of this book – it’s the same book you are currently working on. You can see that the CSS states:

/* Main CSS File: */
@import url("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/styles.css");
/* Uncomment based on the book size you export: */
/* A5 */
/* @import url("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/size/a5-hacks.css"); */
/* 5.5"x8.5" */
/* @import url("http://collaborative-futures.org/material/size/5.5x8.5-hacks.css");*/

This is CSS syntax that imports the ‘real’ CSS used which can be found here: http://collaborative-futures.org/material/styles.css

Copy this CSS, change it, and enter it into the CSS text field of Booki, then try exporting the book again. Experiment with changing the CSS and see what happens.