The Anti-Collaboration Alliance

Three factors have colluded to extinguish the value of collaboration in text production:

  • copyright
  • romanticism
  • marketing

These factors work towards preserving the idea of an ‘author’ as a solitary, elite constructor of literature.

There are a bunch of people that have written about the myth of the solitary author-genius. Most notable are Jack Stillinger (Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius) and Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (The Construction of Authorship). The second work is an edited anthology and much more readable than the first, however both are worth checking out.

Reading these texts, it is easy to picture the perfect alliance of forces designed to promote a simplified attribution and at the same time diminish the idea of collaborative production with all its sticky complexities and apparent contradictions.

The creation of copyright was not only a significant moment of establishing the results of intellectual endeavours as property, it was also a moment of penning into statutes the notion of the single Author.

So dominant is the belief in solitary authorship, there is little chance anyone will listen to a deconstruction of the myth. Any protests against notions of authorship will be shouted down or met with lots of arm crossing and ankle locking. Personally, that kind of response energises me – it suggests there is something very valuable to explore.

And that is the real shame of all this arm crossing – not that the myth of authorship is somehow ‘evil’ in any sense of the word. I don’t agree with IP as it has been constructed, sure, I also don’t believe in solitary author-genius, but nothing about that myth is inherently ‘bad’…in fact, it is quite enticing to believe in these super-human genius authors, here to shed light on our otherwise murky human experience. What is a shame, however, is that this myth has obscured and denigrated the value of collaboration. That is the real loss. We are immature collaborators – we do not possess a vocabulary for about talking the thing we do every day – collaborate. We do not have nuanced understandings of the value of different forms of collaboration around a text. We also do not understand why certain forms of collaboration work in one context and fail in another. We blunder through collaborations, missing huge opportunities to put collaboration under the lens and scrutinize it.

That is what this perfect storm of copyright, romanticism and marketing has done to us. We cannot harness effective collaboration because we are blind to it – we literally do not see it where it occurs and without seeing it we cannot understand it or leverage it.


Xerography—every man’s brainpicker—heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one—instant steal!"   Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the MESSAGE

This vision from McLuhan is of an analogue future. A future of analogue media and analogue networks. It would take digital media to realize his vision. Webpages being the networked document of our time enable the kind of instant steal that McLuhan foresaw. With free content licenses and simple tools for importing content from other books or other libraries, we can borrow enormous amounts of rich information to help us build the books we want. 

In a recent Book Sprint on Basic Internet Security, 9 chapters from 3 existing manuals were reused – that was 15,000 words that we did not have to create afresh. Of course the material needed some work to fit the new context, but it was still a substantial time saver and extended the scope of the book well beyond what we could have produced in the time we had.

This was really quite amazing for me to see. The idea of reusing content was envisioned from the moment FLOSS Manuals was built, but, 3 years later, this was the first real case of substantial re-use. It takes time to build up the materials to make sense of re-use in this way, however, after waiting 3 years, I took a great deal of pleasure in seeing it happen for the first time.

Re-use is not just a time saver, however, there are many other exciting possibilities enabled by re-use. Re-use is also about translation and recontextualisation. Re-use is about updating books and improving them. Re-use is about taking content and making it work in your language. Re-use is about enabling anyone to get your content to their audience and in the form they need it. Re-use is also about allowing you to re-use your own work, since often publishers hold the copyright and do not permit authors to update, re-use, or improve their own work.

Re-use helps you make the books you want to make faster and get them to the people you want to have them in a form that suits them best. 

Re-use, despite its attractive opportunities, is an issue that existing publishing models are going to find very hard to work with. This is because full engagement with re-use leads to the federation of content and the inevitable possibility that anyone can publish any book you have made. Taking a book, not changing a word, marketing it and selling it, is re-use. It is going to be difficult for publishers to agree to this consequence while tapping into the many opportunities for new business models around this idea. But that is not our problem. We want books to be freely re-used and we should find the most open channels to do that. 

The core of re-use is primarily about extending the usefulness and life of a book. 

One of the differences between a book and a newspaper, is that we expect longevity from a book1. We expect a book to have value beyond the date printed at the top of the page. 

The web offers enormous opportunity for the life of a book to be increased further than it is now. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is alive to this idea. They imagine you could take a mathematics text book and update it for the following year’s curriculum, or combine it with another book to better suit your students’ needs. Or correct it if you found a mistake, or translate it. Major advantages in all sectors, not just education, can be attained by keeping books alive. 

Books currently have too long a life as a static object. They have become too static as a result of Gutenberg’s invention. ‘Static-ness’ is now a part of a book’s genetics. ‘Readers’ find it even hard to pick up a pen and write notes in the margin of books. Margin notes are frowned upon by libraries. We have forgotten that notes like this (‘marginalia’) were once very common. When paper was hard to come by, the margin notes were often where books were written.

So books did not always have a static genetic code. They once were places for lively discourse and for book production itself. 

Interestingly, there is a kind of slow historical regression taking place because of digitally-networked media. There are a few projects (notably commentpress2and the yet to be released Social Book by Bob Stein, and some ebook readers) that enable types of margin notes in digital books. In the case of Commentpress these notes are the point of the book – a place to start discourse (almost literally) around the book.

However, we still cannot seem to embrace changing the book itself.  It is one thing to allow ourselves to leave margin notes in this new era of digital documents, since we know the source will not be affected. We can easily spray comments around the book as the book itself stays intact. Can’t we allow ourselves to change the book too?

Books have always been changed over time. Ben Fry did a very nice visualisation3 of the changes Darwin made to his Origin of the Species over 6 editions. It is a nice work showing substantial changes, including the addition of an entire new section in the last edition. The Origin of Species was an evolving thesis and the book was kept alive over the period of Darwin’s life. The book’s ’life’ ended with Darwin’s. 

But why must a book die with the author? Why can’t anyone contribute to a book to keep it alive, even during the life of its author? We feel somehow that this is breaking some kind of moral law (as well as copyright law). Forgetting copyright for now – why not improve the original? Why can’t we take a book, any book, and improve it, perhaps even while the author is still alive? Why is that idea so difficult for us to engage with?

Leaving copyright licensing aside for the moment  – one part of the puzzle involves the overly rarefied respect for the authoritative version. The version born from the author. We (you or I) are not that author and so we cannot know the author’s intent with all its nuances. We should not meddle with a work because we would be breaking our unspoken contract to preserve the author’s intent. It would not be considered an appropriate thing to do. We do not have the authority to do it. The authority is inherent in the author alone – so much so, that the role of the author to the book is analogue to the role of ‘god’ to its creation. The author is the creator.

Sound like I am overstating the cultural value of the author? In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the children use Piggy’s glasses as a magnifying glass to start a fire. However Piggy was short-sighted and hence starting fires with his glasses would be impossible as they are concave, and concave lenses disperse light4 . You cannot start a fire with concave lenses. Would we allow anyone to alter the book to correct this rather trivial fact? No. No, because the book is Golding’s world and in Golding’s world concave lenses start fires. Golding is the creator. He has the authority to change his creation and we do not.

I think that is a very deeply ingrained principle.

For this reason, many recoil in horror with the prospect of changing great works of art. We are in some way tampering with the mind of the creator – a kind of god. However, we must remember that if we change a book, we change nothing in the original. Books, unlike paintings, are not one-of-a-kind pieces. That is precisely why the age of Gutenberg has such an impact – books could be duplicated. So when we change a book (I’m not talking about historical paper artifacts, just the abstracted contents) we don’t destroy anything, and this is particularly true in the digital age. In fact, the digital age gives us more tools to take care of the provenance of a work. Hence we can easily have Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austin and Sethe Grahame-Smith5 . 

How to we develop a culture where it is OK to change a book? Free Licenses are meant to change that but in my experience it is still difficult to get people to take hold of explicit free license clauses that enable derivative works and improve a work. They feel they lack the mandate to change. Many people still ask if they can improve a free/open book work even though the mandate to change a work is loudly passed on and articulated by ‘the creators’ to anyone.

In fact, it is difficult to pass on the mandate to change. It doesn’t help that large projects like Wikipedia are working against this mandate. Wikis and Wikipedia have managed to introduce ideas of participative knowledge creation, but as Lawerence Liang6  has argued, Wikipedia is possibly trying to establish itself as an authoritative knowledge base which also has the effect of revoking the mandate to chang,e as has been experienced by many new contributors that find their edits reversed.

I think we will leave this all behind in time, but it’s going to be a long time.

All books can be improved – even the most sacrosanct literary works. However we live with the notion of the authority of the creator. The only thing that can change that, is to take the rights afforded to us by free licenses and experience and value the possibilities open to us if we act differently.

We need living books, and under copyright we have to fight very hard to keep them alive. The first step it to take someone else’s book and improve it.

  1. Daniel James^
  2. ^

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.

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 ] 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]