Open content. I finally got it.
December 14, 2009
When it comes down to economic principles, I’m quite market liberal. You know, I work and get paid for my work; the better I do my job and the more I work, the more money I make; and preferably nobody gets in my way of doing so. This is a neat idea that works on a microscopically but falls apart on several points when you take it to the macroscopic level. Non-linear motivation and the unjustified disproportionate income across professions are some examples. Social security is another. I shouldn’t be a big fan of welfare systems out of the aforementioned principles. But truth be told I’d rather live in a society where people care enough about each other to provide the essentials of living no matter what, than in one where people are driven into, say, crime just to survive. To paraphrase Wolfgang Grupp, I think of my social security taxes as contributions to a more crime-free, drug-free, poverty-free, police-free environment. Something that makes my own life more pleasant.
The same lesson can be applied to intellectual property and I can’t believe it’s taken me years to figure it out.
Five years ago I wrote a book. Back then Creative Commons was around already, and I knew about it because Mark Pilgrim had published his excellent Dive Into Python book under a CC license. I didn’t do the same for mine and I still can’t understand why. I had been an active OpenSource developer already at that time and I should have known about the benefits of open works. But instead I chose to look for a publisher. I’m very grateful Springer-Verlag took me on as an author but in retrospect I wish they had rejected me. It wasn’t money that I was after when looking for a publishing company—the royalties are pathetic. I went with a publisher because I wanted the book to be professional. I wanted it to have an ISBN and a pretty cover and a price tag and an entry in the Library of Congress. It was really my ego that wanted satisfaction.
Hey look at me, I’m a published author. And with Springer, no less.
Did it make me write a better book? No.
On the contrary. I had some of the best programmers and writers from the community review my book. But had I made my book open content from the start, I could have had essentially the whole community do reviews for me. So predictably, when the book went into print, it was still full of typos and errors. I made some money writing the book but had I set up a “Pay for an (already free) ebook” button on the website, I bet I would’ve made about the same amount of money. People still ask me whether it’s possible to purchase an ebook version. And who’s to say that a publisher still wouldn’t have decided to print it, even if it were available for free online? After all, Apress eventually printed Mark’s Dive Into Python.
Of course, having published a book did not only work out well for my ego, it also generated lots of business for me as a consultant and trainer. But would that have been different if the book had been CC-licensed? Very unlikely.
So here’s my argument: Getting paid for each copy of created works of intellectual property is a neat idea. This model does work and has its merits. But as both a creator and consumer, I would rather live in a society that allows content to be exchanged openly (at least when used non-commercially), than in one where copyright laws seem to benefit publishers and distributors more than creators. I don’t want to live in a society where copyright laws prohibit bands from playing their own music on their website, stop children from remixing popular culture and demand to cut someone’s internet connection because they’ve exchanged some copyrighted material with others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating piracy. But it’s a fact that the internet has changed the way creators and consumers can interact dramatically. The consumers have embraced the ways of the internet already, but many of the creators still haven’t. I hadn’t when I wrote my book, and it meant I produced an inferior work in an analogue world.
As Lawrence Lessig puts it in his excellent talks, we’re not going to be able to revert the internet revolution, we can only drive it underground. Society is changing because of the internet and we need all of society to adapt accordingly, including copyright laws. This is nothing we can do overnight. We must be patient. It took me a while “get it,” just imagine how long it’s going to take them.