Why Attribution is not Sustainable

It’s easy to understand the problems with attribution. In the one book = one author days, it was easy – put the author’s name on the cover. 50 years later, same book, same solution.

However, this does not work for collaboratively-produced works and it is one of the most difficult issues for free culture going forward. Already in FLOSS Manuals, we have books that have 8 pages of credits – each chapter individually referenced with the copyright and attribution data. Some books have 40-50 chapters and some chapters have 20+ collaborators, all of which need to be listed. For FLOSS Manuals, we solved the problem by generating these lists – when edits are done in Booktype, there is a digital record of who did what, so we just automatically generate this list. However, this is just the beginning and we are already asking ourselves – are 8 pages of credits really necessary?

The answer is no, it is not necessary. Attribution is not as important with collaboratively-produced works as one might have suspected. Those involved in the process are not too worried about it – there is some kind of excitement generated by pushing your name forward as a protagonist at some key moment in the life of a book but this can happen in the text, as part of the book’s story, or in press releases, blog posts and so on. We don’t actually need attribution – the prominent foregrounding of all the names of the individuals involved in the book’s production. What we need is backgrounding of this information and the ability to know the history and lineage of a book.

We need standards to maintain history records for a book’s development and we also need this to be stored in publicly- accessible repositories so we can check this information for interest’s sake or more meaningful uses such as historical records, or research.

These records of book history could be also very necessary for verification of content. If, for example, we use open licenses or (one day) no copyright then how do we verify quotes, for example? (In reality, provenance is orthogonal to copyright restrictions, and indeed such restrictions are an obstacle to maintaining provenance, but still. people often ask this question.)  How do I know that this book, which purports to be the thoughts of the author, actually does present the thoughts of the author and not some maliciously invented text masquerading as such ?

Currently, in free software circles, there are at least three major strategies for dealing with this kind of issue:

  • Use a publicly-trusted source for the distribution of content so people know that if the book comes from a trusted source it is what it says it is.
  • Use a ‘checksum’ – a method for verifying of any errors have been introduced in the text during the transmission (delivery) of the content.
  • Digitally-sign content so that it can be verified as coming from the purported source.
  • Libraries or public archives could play a very strong role here. Records of history would become very important in a federated or prolific free-content environment, not just for research but for providing public mechanisms and standards for the ongoing verification of sources.

Attribution is the star system of the single author = single book publishing system. With the breakdown of these models, or at least with the diversification of these models, author attribution will, out-of-necessity, become a more transient commodity. Collating version and contribution history, however, might become a business in itself.

Which is all to say that lowercase attribution (a useful bit of provenance info) is sustainable. By contrast, Attribution to Authors as creator-gods is suspect and superfluous.

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