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.

10 Responses to “Open content. I finally got it.”


  1. So — out of curiosity: will future editions of your Zope3 book be available for free, or does your publisher not allow you to do that?

  2. Ben Says:

    “This is a neat idea that works on a microscopically but falls apart on several points when you take it to the macroscopic level.”

    So you’re “market liberal,” except that the market doesn’t do what you want? Which means you’re not remotely market liberal. The secret to understanding free markets is that they’re not an idea like socialism, they’re simply a part of the natural world. Like gravity, you can ignore them, but you’ll inevitably fall on your ass. It’s not just that it’s morally wrong to rob one person to give to another, it doesn’t work in the long run.

    And the major alternative way of deciding things, politics, barely works at the microscopic level. At the macroscopic level, you run into rent-seeking, restricted bandwidth (think network news) and rational political ignorance, diffuse interests, identity politics, the list goes on. But that’s the *only* mechanism that keeps your elected officials in check. That’s the *only* mechanism to provide oversight for idiotic social engineering / wealth redistribution experiments like Social Security.

    “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.”

    A contribution that you’ll go to jail if you don’t make, and that you’re forcing all your neighbors to make on pain of going to jail. Oh, and I can’t take that money and invest it so it will actually generate a return. Instead I’m essentially forced to stuff it under my mattress.

  3. Ben Says:

    “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.”

    IP is screwed up right now because industry and the law is not even remotely keeping up with technology. I think the GPL is an interesting experiment and I’ve got a few GPLed projects because of that. That said, my motivations for using GPL probably don’t match Stallman’s; I don’t see how a handful of developers and hundreds of thousands of freeloaders constitutes a “community.”

    But as stubbornly wrong as the underlying assumptions behind GNU may be, they probably aren’t as wrongheaded as the firms that are still, after 15 years of failing, trying to reproduce a print and television on the interwebs. The only way this could be more screwed up is if Uncle Sam intervenes and creative destruction (another of those market forces that upsets you so) isn’t allowed to take its course.


  4. Hi Philipp,

    I agree with many of your points here, but I still see a role for paid-for, non-open books. I’ve probably written more “free and open” documentation (principally on plone.org) than non-open (predominantly in my book). And yes, I do sometimes get comments on my online documentation suggesting changes, but I’m pretty sure the quality of the text in my book is at least as high as the quality on any materials I’ve written for free.

    I think printed books have an important place in the documentation corpus. Books help legitimise both a technology (Plone in my case) and an author: I’ve had significant career benefits from being able to say “author of…” on my CV. I’ve also found that the royalties are a nice supplementary income. Packt provide a lot of services (editorship, proof reading, diagramming, printing, marketing, distribution) that are not readily available “for free” from the community, and expect to be compensated appropriately. Clearly, they believe they’ll make more money by protecting their IP than if the content was open. I think that’s legitimate, and I won’t second-guess their business model.

    Equally, online documentation is important because it can be more collaborative and more up-to-date, although that isn’t always the case. I’m pretty sure I would’ve never written Professional Plone Development or anything quite so detailed and comprehensive had I not had the motivation of an editor telling me I was behind schedule all the time.

    Martin

    • philikon Says:

      I too still see a role for paid-for, printed books. I bought Dive Into Python as a paperback. Firstly because I knew I was getting an excellent book, having read parts of it online. Secondly I wanted to support Mark for writing it and Apress for deciding to print it. I bought Andy McKay’s Plone book for the same reasons. I’ve also started buying music again since I discovered last.fm. Because I knew already I was buying stuff I liked. Point is, it wouldn’t have happened hadn’t the content been available to me beforehand.

      I must disagree with you on the second paragraph. Surely printing is something that the community won’t provide for free, but it’s not necessary really. And distribution and marketing? How many people bought this book because they recognised your name when they typed “Plone” into Amazon? I think you yourself did more to promote your book than anybody else. Editorship, proof-reading and diagramming are certainly not to be underestimated, but why wouldn’t they work in the community? You can always create an incentive for helping you by e.g. having joint authorship of the book (Written by X, edited by Y, illustrations by Z).

      I’m glad you’re happy with Packt’s services, but I doubt you would’ve done a worse job producing this book as open content. I’m also guessing you still would’ve written the book even if it hadn’t been for Packt. I knew I still would’ve written mine For the same reason I still write software and then make it available under an open source license. To scratch an itch, solve a problem and fill a void.

  5. Sven Deichmann Says:

    Actually I think, that a wiki-like online version does not automatically prevent a successful printed version. But I doubt that most publishers think so too.
    There are more reasons for me and the company I work for, to buy a hardcopy of a book. For example prestige (looks good for customers on the shelve) and saving paper (paperless office is dead) and space (print it all and put it into a folder and you will get what I mean).
    So after all, people will probably not stop buying books until ebooks look and feel like real books, cost less AND can be folded into your breast pocket😉

  6. Jim Procter Says:

    As someone attempting to write for a publisher at the moment, I’m not sure that I feel that putting information in print legitimises the technology. A publication is an objective datum that can be referred to in the future, but progress occurs in even the most mature fields, and these days, once standards have emerged in publications they are nearly obsolete.

    However, print publications do achieve something that many of the open content models appear to be incapable of, yet. The assembly of a non-linear and often complex set of fragments (e.g. development notes, help documentation, tutorials and fragments of articles) into a properly structured text really does help the reader (and the author!) assimilate the information better. I have great hopes that emerging platforms (such the wikibooks authoring system that’s in development) yield an open authoring model that makes this easier to achieve, and better support the author(s)/editor(s) process.


  7. […] Shared Philipp von Weitershausen: Open content. I finally got it.. […]


  8. […] is well worth a look, and so is Chris’s book. What’s more, he’s done what I didn’t do with my Zope book and published it under a CC license. That in itself is already a reason for buying one. […]


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