Sunday, August 26, 2007

The irony of it all

Karl Fogel makes a critical observation over at Biella Coleman's blog about our choice of license i.e., a traditional publishing one, for Decoding Liberation:
a “pricey” book about free and open source software, that isn’t available online, and from which derivative works cannot be freely made, strikes me as having at least the potential for great irony...I doubt the authors are going to recover their investment of effort from the money they’ll make from sales...So surely they didn’t write this for the royalties, and they aren’t going to make even minimum wage for the time they put in. Rather, I presume they wrote it because they (clearly) care about the topic, they want to spread the word, and because having written it will be a professional asset for them. So, why the proprietary license? Why not live freedom, instead of just talking about it?
I've responded, briefly, and perhaps a little too quickly, both in my initial response to Karl on this blog, and then over at Biella's, so I wanted to write something a little more considered because in point of fact, there are several things floating around in this issue that need to be disentangled.

First, there are two implicit premises in Karl's initial claim: one, that if you are writing on free software and making prescriptive claims about the desirability of sofware freedoms, then it behooves you to act in a way that reflects the sympathy you ostensibly feel for attempts to make information in general more freely accessible (alternative copyright schemes for example), and secondly, that software and books are just like each other, in the freedoms they deserve. The first point is uncomplicated, and pretty obviously correct. The second is more complicated and would take a much longer time to resolve. For what its worth, there are obvious differences between books and software that make the answer to that question complicated. But it doesn't change the answer to a slightly simpler question: do current copyright schemes crack down on innovation, knowledge-sharing and creativity in this day and age? The answer to that is an unambiguous "Yes". And so, really, the answer to the second question is made easier by considering that an affirmative answer to the first question also behooves us to explore which freedoms should the printed word enjoy (exactly the same as those of software? slightly different ones? and so on).

So, why did we agree to a traditional copyright license for Decoding Liberation? We did try, and we failed. We were not sure of how much flexibility we had in these negotiations; we were both quite non-savvy in dealings with publishers and the like; we were well aware of the fact that our book did not fit neatly into any academic category and thus the whole world of academic presses was ruled out, and only publishers that published titles in 'in-between' areas would consider us; we did not come into this book-contract negotiations with any previous capital in this area (I'd published most of my previous work previously in logics for artificial intelligence; Scott in multimedia and security) . All of these reasons are fairly standard ones. Two academics, trying for intellectual and academic cachet for a book, the authority generated by a traditional published title, eager for readers, agree to licensing terms that represent a compromise with their principles. What did we stand to gain by this? Well, hopefully, a readership and an audience and a chance to acquire capital that will enable us to drive a harder bargain down the line. It is entirely possible that Scott and I missed a trick during the course of marketing our book proposal or negotiating the terms of our contract. But we felt quite at sea, and made, at the time, what seemed like a reasonable compromise. The political economy of books is very different from that of software; that of academic books seems more removed from that of regular publishing. Within its constraints we made a decision and this version of the book represents its outcome. I'm hopeful though, that this experience, and the negotiating space created by it, will enable a choice of a different license and distribution modality the next time around. As for "living freedom" and not just talking about it, I'm trying, I assure you, I'm trying. Not quite there yet, but its an ongoing process. (PS: the price is a function of the publisher having determined what the 'market' for the book should be, in this case, libraries. We're working on a paperback version, which will become a possibility if sales are good).


Blogger Karl Fogel said...

" current copyright schemes crack down on innovation, knowledge-sharing and creativity in this day and age? The answer to that is an unambiguous 'No'."

Did you really mean "No"?

If others can't freely make translations of your book, or release re-edited versions, or creative remixes, or modify your arguments (while attributing accurately, of course, so as not to impugn your good name), then I'd say knowledge-sharing and creativity and innovation have pretty unambiguously been cracked down on.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

ARGGH! I meant "Yes"! Thanks, Karl, for pointing out that typo. Once you tell me you've read this comment, I'll edit the original post (and delete these comments!)


2:04 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Typo above has been fixed.

11:05 AM  

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