[-empyre-] a comment on reuse
adam at flossmanuals.net
Thu Jan 19 23:02:05 EST 2012
“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 analog future. A future of analog
media and analog networks. Digital media would 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
other manuals were reused. 15,000 words that we did not have to create
fresh. 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 had we not had the material.
This was really quite amazing for me to see. The idea was imagined 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 3 or so
years waiting for the moment I took a great deal of pleasure in seeing
it happen for the first time.
However reuse is not just this, there are many other exciting
possibilities enabled by reuse. Reuse is also about translation and
recontextualisation. If you can enable easy reuse translations can
follow. Works can be reworked to better fit your context. Reuse is about
updating books and improving them. Reuse is about enabling anyone to get
your content to their audience and in the form they need it. Reuse is
also about allowing you to reuse your own work since often publishers
hold the copyright and do not permit authors to update, reuse, or
improve their own work.
Reuse helps you make the books you want to make faster and get it to the
people you want to have it.
Reuse, 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 reuse leads to the federation of content
(more on this later) 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 reuse (as you can with this book - see
About this Book). 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 reused and we should find the most open channels to
The core of reuse 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 book (1) . 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. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is alive to
this idea. Imagine you could take a mathematics text book and update it
for the following years curriculum. Or combine it with another book to
better suit your students? Or correct it if you found a mistake, or
translate it? Major advantages 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 Gutenbergs invention. 'Static-ness’ is
now a part of a book 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. It was sometimes difficult for the
copyists (the profession that copied books by hand) to know which were
the authors notes and which were ‘by others’. Hence textual criticism is
often focused on the arguments surrounding which marginalia should be
considered part of the authors ‘final’ work.
So books did not always have a static genetic code. They were once
places for lively discourse.
This is slowly changing. There are a few digital projects (notably
commentpress (2) and some ebook readers) that enable types of margin
notes. 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 effected. We can
easily spray comments around the book since the book itself stays
intact. But can't we allow ourselves to change the book too?
Books have always been changed over time. Ben Fry did a very nice
visualisation (3) of the changes Darwin made to the Origin of 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 Darwins life. After that the books ’life’ ended with Darwins.
But why restrict the mandate and right to change a book to the author?
Why can’t anyone improve a book or attempt to improve a book should they
feel the need? We feel somehow that this is breaking some kind of moral
law, however many books are frequently improved by contributors other
than the author and we have no problem with it. Classics are often
edited and ’improved’ before the release of each new edition.
Translation is also a way to improve a text which occurs frequently. If
this was not done then many texts within a single language would not
hardly be understandable today. Ever try and read some old English? Know
what this is?
‘Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure
dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.‘
It is this :
‘Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
The first text is in middle English (which existed in the period between
Old and Modern English). In effect the work has been ‘improved’ so we
can understand it (not a ‘literary’ improvement as such). Translation
like this is a type of re-use. You take the text and transform it into
another context. In this example the new context is another time.
So why not? Why not improve the original? 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 authors intent with all its nuances. We
should not therefore meddle with a work because we would be breaking our
unspoken contract to preserve the authors intent. It would not be, even
though we have the tools and licensed freedom (in many cases) to change,
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.
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 since they
are concave and concave lenses disperse light. You cannot start a fire
with a concave lenses. And yet would we allow anyone to alter the book
to improve upon what is a rather trivial fact? No. No because the book
is Goldings world and in Goldings world concave lenses start fires.
Golding is the creator. He has the authority to change his creation and
we do not.
For this reason many recoil in horror with the prospect of changing
great works of art. We are tampering with the mind 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, this is particularly true in the digital age. Infact 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 Austin and
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austin and Sethe Grahame-Smith.
How to we develop a culture where it is OK to change a book? Book
Sprints are interesting here because the books are born from
collaboration. There is no single author whose intent we need to imagine
and hold dear. The question of author intent becomes difficult to manage
- what was the intent of which author? The authority is distributed from
the outset. However in my experience it is still difficult to get people
to take hold of explicit free license clauses than enable derivative
works and improve a work. They feel they lack the mandate to change.
Many people still ask if they can improve a Book Sprinted work even
though the mandate to change a work is loudly passed on and articulated
by ‘the creators’ to anyone.
Infact 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 Liang (4) has argued Wikipedia is
possibly trying to establish itself as an authoritative knowledge base
which also has the effect of revoking the mandate to change as has been
experienced by many new contributors that find their edits reversed.
I think we will leave this all behind in time but its going to be a long
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.
1. Daniel James^
2. http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/ ^
Founder, FLOSS Manuals
Project Manager, Booki
Book Sprint Facilitator
mobile :+ 49 177 4935122
identi.ca : @eset
booki.flossmanuals.net : @adam
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