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What to do with Open Content

By phinance in Op-Ed
Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 02:31:43 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

Open content, for our purposes here, is writing that is licensed like open source software. That is, you can modify and redistribute it.

These new freedoms bring new possibilities and, perhaps, a new way of looking at books and writing. So what do we do now?

I recently became interested in open content because my book (well, "my" is a strong word -- many people were involved and worked very hard on it) was published under the Open Publication License. It was nice to know that my work would be freely available to the community of developers that created the software that made the book's existence possible, but simply posting the book on a web page seemed to me to be like accepting a job offer but never showing up for work. The HTML is just the beginning.

What would you do with open content knowing that you can modify it and redistribute it? What if the content were technical? What if it were a novel? What about poetry?

Follow open source?

One can adapt ideas from open source software development and think about

Alas, content is not software, so we can and should do different things with it. Here are some key differences:
Many can read human languages, few can read source code.
This means that tools for "consuming" open content need to be more user-friendly, and provide more varied services. For example, I might be a technical manager who wants to read chapter from a Linux admin book, a usage book, and, say The Cathedral & The Bazaar, to get a good introduction to Linux. One could create a book that meets these criteria out of pieces of open content.
Writers are not typically as technically literate as programmers.
This means that more user-friendly tools will be needed for general open content development than, say, CVS. (Twiki is a good start.)
Comprehension of content is not as clear as that of an application.
Readers of content may not know whether they've understood what they've read and, thus, might need more discussion with others at the same or higher level of knowledge. With an application you generally either get it to work, or you know that you don't know how it works. ;) You only need to ask questions when you know you don't know.
My question to you it: How else can we create, support, distribute, and use open content?

Possible Answers

After thinking about theses kinds of things, I created Andamooka, a web site where readers of my book (and, now, many open content books) can annotate and discuss the book section-by-section. This keeps their commentary in context so that, hopefully, communication is more efficient and useful.

Now I'm working on a system to let readers collect pages from Andamooka books and build their own custom book (complete with annotation ;) that they can read online or download.

Are others working on similar projects? What are your thoughts?


Voxel dot net
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Related Links
o Open content
o Open Publication License
o the community of developers
o Open content community development
o Linux HOWTOs
o Twiki
o Andamooka
o Also by phinance

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What to do with Open Content | 11 comments (11 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Intent and purpose (4.66 / 9) (#1)
by theboz on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 11:02:19 AM EST

What I see a a somewhat big problem is one of intent and purpose. It is easy to say, "I want to write a program to send me email alerts based on apache web server logs. You have a clear purpose and can easily reach a goal.

With writing, it tends to be more subjective. I think you can get away with it on technical text, but with fiction and things based on opinion you will have problems. The intent of the author is not as clear as a purpose for writing, so you lose what it was originally meant to do. An example would be to have Stephen King's novels modified by the person who wrote the Curious George books. Or to have Anne Rice make the scripts for the teletubbies. While it would be a fun exercise to do so and see what the results are, I think that you would end up with crap. Collabriation can work some on fiction and opinion-based books when you have a small finite amount of people. However, when you get potentially thousands of people working on the same book and making changes, the story will become disjointed. Characters will change, and lose the purpose that you intended for them to have. People will ignore other parts of the book making the main character go from John Wayne to Bozo the Clown to Natalie Portman in a single paragraph.

Anyways, I do think for the technical text that the majority of your site consists of, collabriation is good because you are writing on facts based things. With fiction though, I'd try it just to see what happens but I wouldn't expect that to go too far. I guess I am tainted also because I remember back in the days of BBSing I frequented a BBS that had a never-ending type story that anyone could contribute to. It was about vampires and very gothic and sensitive. Of course, being the asshole, I went and posted a continuation where Winnie the Pooh went in and beat up and killed the main characters. I believe there was some sex involved there as well with Winnie the Pooh. Needless to say, the few people that were collabriating on it previously got pissed off.


Open content administration (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by Beorn on Wed Jan 24, 2001 at 04:34:57 AM EST

With writing, it tends to be more subjective. I think you can get away with it on technical text, but with fiction and things based on opinion you will have problems.

Very good point. Software is a tool, with a clear purpose, and is much more suitable for large group cooperation than art. But there are also similarities here. All open source projects are administrated by a small group of people who have an idea of how the program should work. Anyone may submit a simple bug fix, but fundamental changes must be discussed with the administrators, (or forked into a new project.)

In the same way, an open content projecet would be administrated by a small group of people with a creative vision. The equivalent of a simple bug fix would be to rewrite a sentence, or a paragraph -- this is possible without drowning the authors vision. Anything larger would have to be discussed with the author(s).

What is important here is that creativity should not be a democratic or anarchic process. An open content management system should not allow anyone to make any change they want, everything must go through the creator.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Similar scoop-based idea (4.00 / 2) (#2)
by rusty on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 01:45:19 PM EST

I've actually been pondering a very similar project for a while; I just haven't got time to do it yet. I'd like to alter Scoop a bit to treat stories more like chapters (or sections of chapters) in a book, and set up a site for people to create books and invite anyone to work on them. If stories could know where they fit in a heirarchy, and whether they're replacing an older version of themselves or not, you'd have a collaborative authoring tool. I suspect we're going to see more of this kind of thing, especially with tech books.

Not the real rusty
Re: Similar scoop-based idea (4.00 / 1) (#4)
by phinance on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 02:38:26 PM EST

For more creative, self-expression works, I could imagine that system never "replacing" old content, just forking the repository. This way you'd have a tree structure and pariticpants would be, in essence, voting one which branch(es) they liked best by contributing to those. Don't like a turn the story has taken? Go up a level, a write your own new branch.

I think a site like that could be a lot of fun for writers, poets, visual artists (i.e., use images instead of text), musicians (mp3s or ogg instead of text :), etc.

Read, annotate, and discuss open source documentation.
Andamooka: Open support for open content.
[ Parent ]

Don't think it's like scoop (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by bjrubble on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 03:14:55 PM EST

I've done some basic tinkering along these lines, and what I've concluded is that the Scoop and even Wiki models don't really do the job. Scoop's problem is that it is only additive; Wiki's problem is that it just replaces old content with updated content. Collaborative content should be like collaborative code; what people submit are patches, approved patches are lumped into a release, and further patches are based on that release.

The technical issue of patching content isn't that hard. Allow freeform editing of a bit of text, run it through diff, and allow the user to group bits of diffed content into logical "patch items." But then it gets trickier. You need to have some sort of collaborative evaluation of the patches, and some schedule or criteria for applying the patches into a new release and starting the process over. You then run into questions like, how do you deal with two patches that are both approved but conflict with each other in some way, or what about good patches that don't make it into a release and are rendered invalid because they no longer patch validly?

It would be a cool thing to get working, though. If I get off my Qt kick I may go back to it, but right now I'm gearing up for my coming iPaq. (Woo hoo!)

[ Parent ]
Indeed (5.00 / 1) (#6)
by rusty on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 04:43:16 PM EST

That's why it needs some changes to Scoop to work properly. You're right, in your description of what needs to happen. But think of it this way.

Take Scoop, add something to stories so they can know where they belong. Relevant info would be:

  • parent: this story should be placed after the parent in any listing of contents
  • replaces: this story is a replacement for "replaces" this other story-- to put it another way, "replaces" would point to the previous version of this section
So, break your book down into reasonable sections, and create a blank story for each section. Then open it up to anyone. Anyone could look at a section, and click a "revise" button. This would create a new story that knows it should replace the previous version (it would probably be pre-populated with the text of the previous as well). Edit, save, and it goes into the voting queue. Anyone interested can look at new sections, and vote on whether or not they are better than the existing section. Basically, repeat this process until you have a book.

I imagine if you wanted to actually go to press, the "author" of the project would probably need to take a snapshot and edit it for continuity and coherence before you could print it. But the collaborative method would get you pretty close.

The reason Scoop would be a useful base to start from is that it already has built-in commenting and voting stuff, so the delta from what it has now to what it needs is actually fairly small.

You could implement this with a diff/patch style system. Or you could just build in some tools that will show you differences between revisions of a section, based on full-text. Either way would work, really. I'd lean toward storing full-text and diffing on-demand, just because it would minimize the changes needed to how Scoop displays stories.

So, yes, Scoop's basic limitation right now is that it's additive. The changes above would be what's needed to make it treat stories as revisions of each other, rather than chronological additions.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

So how do you handle... (none / 0) (#10)
by bjrubble on Thu Jan 25, 2001 at 12:28:27 AM EST

when two people make edits at around the same time on different parts of the content? I'm thinking about this as, I go through a story and make a bunch of spelling fixes. Somebody else corrects a URL. Another person rewords a few sentences. If you're just replacing the chapter one-for-one, somebody's going to have to manually collect those fixes together or people will have to choose between them. I guess in some cases that would work fine, maybe people could collaborate on individual fixes in the discussion area then one of them puts up an edit. And if the voting cycle is short enough you'll be editing a pretty new version. But for a very long story I think it would have problems.

[ Parent ]
I am licensing my fiction for open and free use (4.40 / 5) (#3)
by DontTreadOnMe on Tue Jan 23, 2001 at 01:52:32 PM EST

I am currently writing a novel (shameless plug) which I am distributing under a Free Media License for anyone to use, bastardize, make derivative works (such as a movie) from, and so on.

I looked at the Open Publication License and liked it, but wanted to take it a step further. I want my material to be free for anyone to use to create new and different works, perhaps in very different media (not just publishing in paper form as a novel). For example, I've had a couple of people express interest in making student films from my "pro free thought" novel, even though I am only about two thirds through the first (very rough) draft. The Free Media License is intended to allow this, so long as the resulting film (or other derivative work) is likewise free.

Some other issues I've thought about in this regard (and tried to work into the License where applicable) include

  • How to protect the name/reputation of the original creator while allowing complete freedom of derived works (obvious examples come to mind, such as the transfiguration of a children's novel into an offensive porn ... people should be free to do this, but not imply the original author had anything to do with the offensive changes, or approves in any way).
  • How to protect the reputations of other participants (actors whose faces are overscanned onto naked bodies, for example) in the same fashion
  • How to insure one's work is the seed for a growing commons of free content for all to use, rather than disappearing into a traditional work with traditional, MPAA/RIAA-like restrictions
  • How to balance the first two items with the need and right of the original author to be acknowledged for their creation/contribution.

Your thoughts on collaborative writing/creation, and a "CVS" like service geared for nontechnical people is particularly interesting. I would expand this to other forms of collaborative works, such as music (several people writing the music, several others contributing lyrics, cover art, etc.) and film (collaboration on the sound track, obtaining footage, editing, etc.). Perhaps a "CVS for arbitrary media."

http://openflick.org - Fighting Copyright with Free Media
Open novels? (none / 0) (#9)
by Tatarigami on Wed Jan 24, 2001 at 09:57:40 PM EST

I think that making the text of a work of fiction open-content is wrong. People should not take your words, rearrange them, then claim the credit. The universe you're writing in and your characters are another case entirely, as I'm sure anyone who enjoys fan fiction will agree.

But another writer should have to come up with their own story to entertain the punters, at least.

[ Parent ]
It is about enriching humanity, not personal gain (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by DontTreadOnMe on Thu Jan 25, 2001 at 02:44:56 PM EST

I think that making the text of a work of fiction open-content is wrong. People should not take your words, rearrange them, then claim the credit.

But another writer should have to come up with their own story to entertain the punters, at least.

I disagree. Ideas cannot and should not be "owned," whether the idea is a new mathematical algorithm, a new and better way to build a car, or a storyline (or individual character) for a novel. Ideas enrich humanity and fuel additional ideas in a synergistic relationship with notions of proprietary ownership (as expressed in things like copyright, patents, and even trademark law when it is abused) undermine and even destroy.

I am not writing Autonomy for personal aggrandizement, or to make money, or to cordon off a set of ideas to call exclusively "my own." I am writing it to express some concepts I find important (in the case of Autonomy the conflict between Intellectual Property and Freedom of Thought), to tell a good yarn, to entertain myself and others, but most importantly, to enrich all of humanity by contributing some IMHO good ideas to the public commons of art we call culture.

Can you imagine a world in which Disney-style copyrights applied to such public icons as Santa Clause? Think of how many childrens Christmas stories would simply not exist, were the idea, the icon, locked up the way Mickey Mouse is (and will be, in perpetuity, as congress whores itself out to the Media Cartels in general and Disney in particular every time that copyright grows close to expiry).

Luckilly, since it is my work, I can license it any way I choose to do so. I have chosen to use my own Free Media License, which incorporates aspects of the GNU GPL, the Open Content License, and others.

Why? Because the FML does exactly what I want it to, namely:

  • Requires the original artist(s) be duly credited with creation of the original work
  • Require that any artist making changes to the original work acknowledge that they have done so and take responsiblity for those changes
  • Explicitly remind the casual observer that any changes were made quite probably without the original artist's knowledge or approval, and that this is allowed.
  • Clearly identify any derived, changed work, as such such that it is not confused with the original work.
  • Requires that any derived work be released under the same license, so that others are free to further modify, change, enhance, or otherwise incorporate the work into their projects (so long as they, too, are released under the same, free license).

For three million years stories and folklore were the common property of all mankind, told from elder to younger through the generations, added to, enhanced, and modified as others saw fit. The result was a rich diversity of culture and art and a level of artistic freedom which is being denied us today (if you read the aforementioned link you'll find your "fan fiction" isn't as safe from suppression as you might expect).

http://openflick.org - Fighting Copyright with Free Media
[ Parent ]
There is a book writing system: (none / 0) (#8)
by emmanuel.charpentier on Wed Jan 24, 2001 at 09:33:07 AM EST

It's VeniVidiVoti and in process of being written. I'm currently fighting heavily with the delegation code, and gaining ground! But two of the two other major features are wroking.

In fact it's not just a book writing, it's targeted at being a full democracy project where you actually write a book (or a poem, or a novel, or a newspaper...)

What to do with Open Content | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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