Free Books: A Sneaky Success

by Ben Crowell


At the height of the dot-com bubble, twenty-somethings with goatees were telling us that e-books were the wave of the future. Those e-books they had in mind were like proprietary software: they weren't free (-as-in-anything), they only worked on proprietary hardware, and they came with shrinkwrap licenses and digital rights management. They failed. The successful model that's sneaking under the radar is the copylefted book.


This article is copyright 2002 by Benjamin Crowell, and is open-content licensed under the GFDL 1.1 license

Other articles in this intermittent series are this one from 2000, and this one from 2005.

Two years ago, the idea of a free book --- a book whose author had intentionally made it free on the internet --- was largely unknown and untested.[1] Looming on the horizon instead, with every prospect of success, were the "anti-books:" electronic books encumbered with odious licensing terms and restrictive digital rights management technology.[2] You wouldn't be able to loan such a book to a friend, public libraries couldn't acquire it, and if you stopped paying your rental fee, it would expire and become unreadable!

What the marketroids predicted didn't come true. The anti-book has been an abject failure. What seems to be succeeding instead is the copylefted book. My own online catalog, The Assayer,[3] currently lists 385 books that are free as in beer (i.e., can be read without paying money), of which 50 are free as in speech (come with copyleft licenses, and are guaranteed to stay free forever). My list is based only on random websurfing done by me and other users of my web site, so the true number of free books is certainly much greater than this. What's perhaps more significant than the quantity of books on the list is their quality: at least two of them[4],[5] seem to be the standard textbooks in their field today.

Displacing Unfree Books

So at least in some cases, free books have displaced unfree ones in the marketplace. This is a remarkable achievement! For all the open-source software movement's successes, I'm not aware of any case in which an entrenched proprietary program was pushed out of first place in the market by open-source software. We should sit up and pay attention to what this tells us about the future of the free information movement. How did it happen, and why has it happened with books but not with software?

One difference between books and software is that unlike books, software is easy to emulate and easy to add features to. An innovation like the graphical user unterface can be embraced and extended by proprietary software companies like Apple and Microsoft, and the winner in the marketplace will be whoever has the best marketing. Conversely, an open-source project like can try to compete with an entrenched proprietary program like MS Office, but will always have to play catch-up when Microsoft adds a new feature that one user out of a thousand comes to consider indispensible. None of this happens with books. Microsoft can't just say, "Romeo and Juliet was a big success for Shakespeare, so we'll write something similar."

Books also have no barrier to entry. Most people think computers are scary and confusing. They're willing to keep paying for new versions of Word because they don't want to have to learn a different word processor, and they're worried about compatibility. Books, however, are easy to use, and most computer users know how to use an electronic book that is in the ubiquitous (and nonproprietary) Adobe Acrobat format.

Dead Trees

Readers want their books on paper, and this is another advantage that authors of free books enjoy and open-source programmers don't. A printed book is something you can sell. An open-source software vendor like Mandrake can have a tough time convincing users to pay for something they could get for free. Book publishers like Baen and O'Reilly, however, have found that they can increase sales of their printed books by giving away the digital versions for free. This has also been my own experience with my self-published physics textbooks. It's cheap marketing: readers can browse the digital book to see if it's something they want, and if they like it, they're willing to pay for the convenience of a printed copy.

By the way, here's another place where the dot-bombers goofed. Remember a few years ago when they were predicting that print-on-demand publishing would be the wave of the future? You were supposed to be able to go to your local Borders or Barnes and Noble, ask for an obscure book on medieval Bulgaria, and have it printed and bound while you sipped a $5 cappucino. It didn't happen, probably in part because the technology was unwieldy and in part because the store's employees would have had to show an unusual level of craftsmanship and attention to detail considering their pay and their already busy workloads.

The Cathedral, Not the Bazaar

Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar[6] has had a big effect on how hackers think about open-source software. (And by the way, this is another example of a book that is free in digital form, and can also be bought in print.) Raymond described a model of collaborative software development in which a large, geographically dispersed group of programmers worked together in a seemingly chaotic way. This bazaar model was to be contrasted with the cathedral model, in which everything is done according to a detailed, preexisting plan.

The bazaar model seems to have been almost a complete failure in the world of free books, although not for want of trying. Tellingly, The Cathedral and the Bazaar was itself written cathedral-style by Raymond. He has also started a bazaar-style book project, The Art of Unix Programming[7], which appears to be languishing. I can only think of one high-quality, finished bazaar-model free book, a textbook in which each author wrote one chapter.[4]

The failure of the bazaar model with free books might not seem surprising, since to most people it sounds like the silly party game where each person takes a turn adding more onto a story. We normally assume that an author has a unique voice, and that authorship can't be delegated. However, quite a high percentage of the world's free books seem to be software documentation, which in principle should be amenable to a decentralized approach. The GFDL copyleft license for books is clearly aimed at such projects, and requires, for example, that the book be maintained in a form that can be edited with free software, so that it will never become a pig in a poke if the original author loses interest or goes incommunicado. Group authorship, however, just doesn't seem to have caught on, even in software documentation. Maybe the explanation is that in software projects, the number of programmers interested in writing documentation averages to less than one. However, that wouldn't explain the failure of the Nupedia open-content encyclopedia project, which would seem to have been ideally suited for group authorship. My own experience attempting to contribute an article to Nupedia suggests a simpler theory: people make free information because it's fun, and group authorship is not always fun. After I wrote the original version of this article, several people pointed out the existence of Wikipedia, which was meant to be a minor ``fun'' project alongside the Nupedia online encyclopedia. Unlike Nupedia, Wikipedia has taken off, and has a lot of people contributing articles. This suggests that bazaar-style book projects can work, but whether they'll work may depend a lot on how they're organized, and on whether they're fun to participate in.

Note added December 2002: I dipped my toes in the water as a participant in Wikipedia, and had some fun at first working on some of the physics articles. However, it seems to me that Wikipedia has a problem with certain articles getting hijacked by cranks. If Nupedia was too strict and regimented, Wikipedia seems to have the opposite problem: a lack of serious quality control. Specifically, take a look at the articles on certain topics related to astrology, e.g., Horoscope, Zodiac, and Walter Mercado. If you click on "older versions," you can see the history of how these articles were edited. In my opinion, the true believers in astrology have continually rebuffed attempts by various people (including me) to make these articles neutral in tone, rather than credulous and one-sided. Skeptics add some text to try to balance the treatment a little, and then the true believers delete it again. To me, this is the antithesis of what ``free'' is about: silencing any voice with which one disagrees. In my opinion, the Nupedia and Wikipedia projects were both interesting social and technological experiments, but neither model can be successful in the long term without some big changes. Right now, I'd be reluctant to look anything up on Wikipedia and trust that I was getting the whole story. The good news, however, is that even if (as I hope) Wikipedia's social and technological structure mutates and improves in the future, that doesn't mean all the old text is lost. It's still free information, and it can be incorporated into a new and improved version of the encyclopedia.

Free Forever, or Just For Now?

Eric Raymond's name is closely associated with the bazaar model, while Richard Stallman's evokes the cathedral, as demonstrated most dramatically by the contrast between Stallman's HURD kernel project and the Linux kernel. There is another way in which Stallman's unique point of view has been prescient when it comes to free books. One of his key concerns has been how to make sure that once information was set free, it would never be recaptured and made proprietary again. Apparently this focus came from his experience with the Emacs editor --- Stallman wrote the editor, incorporating some code that other programmers had shared with him, and a dispute later arose in which his coauthors tried to keep him from distributing the program freely. Just as Stallman's cathedral style has turned out to be more typical of free books than of free programs, I think his horror of backsliding is more apropos for prose than for code. Free software predates Stallman's invention of copyleft, and old no-license freeware like Donald Knuth's TeX has shown no particular tendency to become unfree (and the Emacs dispute, as far as I can tell, was simply a misunderstanding that could have been avoided if the authors had made an agreement in writing).

Books are different. Self-publishing a book is much more difficult than self-publishing a program, and print publishing is a capital-intensive business. Nearly all authors need to work with a publishing house if they want to see their books in print. In most cases, the book contract gives the copyright to the publisher. (There are standard contracts for most types of books, and authors generally have a hard time negotiating any special terms.) Many authors are not willing to copyleft a book because they're afraid it will be a stumbling block if they want to sell it to a publisher later. It's very common to find a free-as-in-beer book available for downloading, but with a note on the author's web page that the book is free ``for now.'' In other words, the day the author gets a book deal, the web page will quietly evaporate, and the book will be gone from the world of free information. I've also seen cases where a book was available in electronic form from the publisher's web site, but later the publisher stopped making it available for downloading. Addison-Wesley, for example, has done this with some of its technical books. One author's web page[8] states, Thanks to the adventurous spirit of our publisher, A K Peters, Ltd., you can now download the entire book "A=B" to yourself right now. [...] This offer is good until April 1, 2000, at which time it may be withdrawn. The book is still available for downloading, but who knows for how long. A book called Palm Programming: The Developer's Guide used to be a free download from the authors' web page, but now it's only available in electronic form through O'Reilly's Safari program, which costs money.


We respect books. One reason has always been their potential permanence, which makes it especially worrisome that free books have such a tendency to vanish or become unfree. Another reason is economics. In the middle ages, books were awesome objects simply because they cost so much to create --- a rich man could own five or ten. Even after the invention of the printing press, a big initial investment was needed in order to publish a book. The assumption was that if you could get your book published, it must be good. Somehow it had risen to the top of what editors universally refer to as the ``slush pile.''

The World-Wide Web changed all that. The web brought cheap publishing to the masses, so inevitably it cheapened publishing. Nobody is terribly impressed when they hear that I wrote a book and put it on the web --- what impresses them is when they hold the bound, printed object in their hands. We still need a way to tell good books from bad ones, but when it comes to free books, we no longer have a publisher to make an editorial decision. Who is the gatekeeper? We still need intelligent, qualified people to help us sift the wheat from the chaff, but when it comes to free books, the judgment of quality can come after publication, not before. This is a wonderful thing! Top-40 radio is a sample of what you get from the modern media conglomerates if you give them centralized control before publication. The web can make publishing free --- free as in freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility, and that's why I'll end with a request. Please take the time to write a short review of a free book on The Assayer. If you haven't read a free book recently, you might be surprised at how much good reading you can get for free --- browse The Assayer and look for books that have a dandelion flower or bud next to their titles, indicating that they're free.


[1] Ben Crowell, Do Open-Source Books Work? >>Link
[2] Clifford Lynch, The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World >>Link
[3] The Assayer >>Link
[4] On-Line Biophysics Textbook >>Link. The book can be reviewed on The Assayer>>Link
[5] Warren Siegel, Fields >>Link. The book can be reviewed on The Assayer>>Link
[6] Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar >>Link. The book can be reviewed on The Assayer>>Link
[7] Eric Raymond, The Art of Unix Programming >>Link. The book can be reviewed on The Assayer>>Link
[8] Marko Petkovsek, Herbert Wilf, Doron Zeilberger, A=B >>Link. The book can be reviewed on The Assayer>>Link

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