Why I Chose a Creative Commons License

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 17, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

On April 10, I'm publishing a book called Designing with LibreOffice. The experience can be surreal, and some other time I've got to blog about incidents like my photo shoot, which was continually interrupted by a two by two line of ten year olds coming and going, or trying to plan a book launch menu that included vegetarian options and satisfied two different sets of allergies.

However, one of the most peculiar aspects is the congratulations I hear when I mention that the book will be published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. After all, the idea is hardly new. Besides, given my goals, what other choice do I have?

To start with, I am entering my thirteenth year of writing about free software several times per week. Under these circumstances, I would be rightly condemned as a hypocrite if I didn't use some sort of free license. If someone else didn't condemn me, I would -- which would be so much against my self-image that I'd do almost anything to avoid the inconsistency.

For another, I look at the publication as an experiment. I have always been intrigued by Neil Gaiman's comments on so-called piracy, in which he contends that a pirated copy is probably not a lost sale, since the reader probably wouldn't have bought anyway, and, more importantly, that piracy provides word-of-mouth advertising that helps sales in the long-term.

Of course, unlike Gaiman's  work, my book is non-fiction, and a free download of a CC-licensed book is the dead opposite of piracy. However, considering that the publisher is hoping to make back costs by selling hard copies, from a business perspective, in both cases there is a concern about the relationship between free copies and sales. What, I wonder, will be the ratio of free downloads to paid copies? Will an increase in free downloads be followed some days later by an increase in hard copy sales?

Similarly, since there will be a tip jar below the download link, what proportion of the amount I might have earned from sales will be off-set by voluntary donations?

In other words, I am curious whether I can confirm Gaiman's observations. Naturally, I have no objection to sales, and I would like to see the publisher (Friends of Open Document Format) make back what is basically its expression of trust in me. However, I was paid a market-rate advance, and the Attribution part of the license means that I receive credit, that ultimate monetary unit in free software, so my curiosity is more disinterested than you might expect.

If nothing else, I can establish a base ratio of free copies to sales, and see if my next book is consistent with it. Also, should anyone ask me about using Creative Commons licenses, I can give them a data point, and not just an uninformed guess. With any luck, my experience may encourage someone else to use a free license.

Passing it forward
All these points matter a great deal to me. However, another major reason is that, with regular updates, "Designing with LibreOffice" could have a long shelf life. I have every intention of providing those updates for years to come, but accidents do happen. And who knows? As hubristic as it sounds, maybe three or four decades from now, something called LibreOffice will still exist, and users will still want to know how to design to typographic standards.

If, in a future that doesn't hold me, the book still has any value, I want to offer anyone who is interested the option of continuing to update it without being hampered by traditional copyright.

Meanwhile, neither the publisher nor I are likely to be able to afford a translation. If someone thinks the effort of producing a German or a Mandarin version is something they'd like to undertake, I don't want licensing to prevent the book being available for more people.

I would like to think I've written a useful book, full of information readers won't find elsewhere. If that is conceit, then my belief doesn't matter. However, if there is any shred of truth in my belief, I want what I started to go on being useful for as long as possible.

And that, more than anything else, is why I chose a Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike license. My choice of license gives the book a better chance of fulfilling my goals than traditional copyright ever could.

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