FLOSS Manuals has been experimenting in models of open publishing for the last 2 years. In many ways this experiment has been as important and interesting as our primary goal - to produce free documentation about free software. While we are still finding our way, on reflection I feel we have already learnt a great deal about Open Publishing, and hence I can now present some thoughts on what does and doesnt work. This point of view is mine, others in FLOSS Manuals may agree or disagree to varying degrees, also it is important to note that most of these conclusions are based on andecotal evidence, mainly through my experience founding and building FLOSS Manuals, we do not have much empirical data, nor have we conducted research to investigate these issues.
First, I would like to state that I think the present publishing business model relies on three components - the Publisher, the Author and Copyright. I will leave the audience out of the equation for now, as I want to show how these three components work in symbiosis to support the construct we call Publishing.
I also want to say that while these three factors support and facilitate Publishing as we know it today, they are also the three strongest barriers to what I would consider an Open Publishing environment.
Before I proceed, a little about FLOSS Manuals. We are a non-for-profit organisation, with about 1200 members across all sites. We have 4 established language sites - English, Finnish, Farsi, and Dutch with Spanish and French coming up quickly. We also have many manuals being translated to about 20 other languages on a one-off basis.
We are currently growing at about 3 new members a day. FLOSS manuals also now has about 50 manuals in English with many of these translated as mentioned above.
FLOSS Manuals develops the content under the free license most associated with free software - the GPL. The GPL is often cited by FLOSS Manuals new comers as a strange choice but this is married to the perception, seemingly endorsed by an odd use of language in the preamble to the license, that the GPL is only for code. However this is not the case. The GPL is usable for any kind of content, this is not just my position, but the position of the Free Software Foundation, who originated the license, and the Software Freedom Law Center that maintains the license.
We use the CC wrapper to the GPL. In my opinion, Creative Commons licensing has muddied the waters of free content. They have done a tremendous job of marketing free culture - and this is something they should be congratulated for, but they have, in the end, made everything
too complicated. The one good thing they did, in terms of licensing, was to put a human readable wrapper around the GPL. If they had stopped there and marketed free culture with this one license, we would be now living in reuse utopia. We could reuse any kind of content easily. Instead we have unworkable licenses and a confusing array of them. Many licenses are not interoperable, and it is almost impossible to port data between jurisdictions.
CC also places a high value on Attribution, and Attribution is culturally akin to the effect of copyright all rights reserved. This is because Attribution reinforces the perception of ownership, and in a culture brought up on default 'all rights reserved', it is extremely hard to free content from the perception that the Authored (with a capital 'A') content can be reused, changed, adapted etc without the need to ask etc. The CC emphasis on Attribution does not help the free reuse and distribution of content.
So, when we look at the current Publishing Model and if we were to change the licensing to a free license (Creative Commons, for example), then we have not given birth to an Open Publishing environment. Actually the only thing that changes is that publisher get a little more nervous that someone will take their content and run away with it. What we have is still the Author, the Publisher, the emphasis on ownership via Attribution and exactly the same business model - sell books.
It is interesting to note, that the sale of books itself actually is a deterrent to Open Publishing. Placing the return for the author and publisher at the end of the process (book sales) means everyone has a vested interest in selling books, not giving them away. There are some enlightened souls that see free licensing as enabling viral marketing ie. if my content is taken for free, the word gets out about it and this in turn eventually creates sales. In many ways, I think this is actually the underlying message of Creative Commons, and one could conjecture that this is why CC is the beloved license of new web 2.0 enterprises that recognise the value of the kind marketing CC enables.
However, in the end, I think that the reliance on book sales diminishes the will to give content away. Seems obvious really.
So...In my opinion, single authored works under free licenses behave the same way as if under copyright all rights reserved. In my experience as monitor of all things FM, I see that the manuals that have the least changes made are those that are authored by identifiable single (or dual) authors. The community, I would suggest, recognises the authorship and treads warily around these tombs.
On the otherhand...manuals whose genesis is by community (for example, the material generated in Book Sprints), have far more activity - not just from those directly involved in the origin of the material, but by casual passers by. Hence, I think that the real key to Open Publishing is not in changing the licensing, but by changing the culture of Authorship.
Community generated works have a mandate that is considered easier to assume.
Moving on a little...when we look at this closely we see that by changing the culture of Authorship we have actually broken the entire Publishing Model. This is because Authors and Publishers need each other. Publishers bestow status on an Author when they choose them to create a work, and Authors, if they do a good job, reinforce the position of the Publisher as the entity that can bestow status. Its a star system and it fits into the model nicely since Publishers need to sell books to make money and the stronger their ability to bestow status the more marketable their Authors become. Its a circular marketing ecology.
However, if you take away the identifiable Author you break the Publishers marketing strategy. Why would a reader, who has also brought into the star system, trust a work created by 'some people'. Our reliance on credible sources is not only shallow and week upon investigation, but it also hinders the development of free culture and maintains the status quo.
Established Publishers are going to find this proposition extremely risk. Not only because the culture of readership means few will trust 'unnamed sources' (the borg) but also because established Publishers already have a star system they need to maintain. If a Publisher in this situation would then publish a 'borg book' then they are stating they do not believe that named experts are necessary to provide quality content. If they do this, they undermine their existing stable of Authors, and simultaneously take a risk with their readership. Risky business.
So...lets just say I am right. That the evolution of a Open Publishing environment means changing the culture of Authorship. What does this mean for copyright, and what business model does it leave?
Well, its bad news for copyright. This is not because the borg cant exist with copyright - it can. However, copyright just seems to become increasingly meaningless. Who do you attribute? The borg? Why? How? It just seems a little silly to start to enter these conversations. If someone changes a line do they get the same credit and 'protection' as someone that wrote 90% of the article, What is a translation? Is it a derivate work, or does translation, which is largely interpretation, convey participation in the Authoring process?
The mandate to change that is more easily transfered by community generated materials, enables the flow of information in so many ways it is hard to see how Attribution clauses can keep up. Also, we find that jurisdiction issues come to the fore and content is stopped at the border by pedants.
Changing the culture of the Author highlights the problems with copyright. The only solution, is to get rid of this unmanageable construct.
Lastly, a word on how Open Publishing business models might endorse the dissolution of copyright. The traditional publishing business model is protected by copyright. However, this is largely because the traditional model relies on the sales of books. If you were to remove this reliance, and I believe for Open Publishing you absolutely have to remove this reliance, then you free the content. The question is then where should you generate the revenue? The answer is relatively simple, but unestablished. Place it at the beginning of the process. Find people and organisations that want to pay for content to be developed. If you do this, then contributors have no vested interest in retarding the free flow of information. It is in this environment that the 'viral marketing' can truly take hold. And once again, the only barrier to fast and unencumbered marketing (distribution of material) is copyright and copyright licensing. Take away copyright and you have a unencumbered Open Publishing business model.