[-empyre-] a comment on reuse

adam 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 
do that.

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/ ^
3. http://benfry.com/traces/^
4. http://vimeo.com/10750350^

Adam Hyde
Founder, FLOSS Manuals
Project Manager, Booki
Book Sprint Facilitator
mobile :+ 49 177 4935122
identi.ca : @eset
booki.flossmanuals.net : @adam


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