Originally Published: Tuesday, 21 March 2000 Author: David Fugate
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Copyleft Publishing

The idea of publishing a book under a copyleft license has come up a couple of times recently in discussion with authors, and I wanted to see what some of you felt about it.

The idea of publishing a book under a copyleft license has come up a couple of times recently in discussion with authors, and I wanted to see what some of you felt about it.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, it's basically the same as the GNU General Public License which is used for software such as the Linux kernel. You can redistribute it, add to it, modify it, republish it, and even resell it (just like Red Hat, Debian, Corel, and others do with Linux) royalty free so long as you give proper attribution, release the source code, and publish your work under the same license. It's a terrific concept and is the basis for why the open source movement has taken off in such an incredible way.

Not surprisingly, it's been the open source authors who've primarily been interested in doing books under a copyleft license. Their goal is often that they want the work to become a living part of the community itself -- to be redistributed widely, commented on by many, added to by some, taken in wildly different directions by others, and so on, with the idea that it will ultimately lead to a much better book and benefit everyone. It's a compelling vision and one that I happen to like and admire tremendously.

However, a book is not quite the same as a piece of software. All kinds of interesting issues are raised, for both the publisher and the author, when you try to publish a book under copyleft. For the publisher, who has to invest $40-50K to publish the book, the concerns are perhaps the greatest. For one thing, under the copyleft license, there's the potential for a competing publisher to simply republish the book. That's a nightmare for almost any publisher to contemplate, and what's worse is that because the competing publisher doesn't have to pay an author royalties, and doesn't pay for editorial, they'd always be able to undercut the original publisher on price because their margins are so much better. Another is the potential loss of foreign rights money (a significant source of income for both publisher and author). From a foreign publisher's perspective, why pay the publisher for the rights if the complete text of the book (and in fact, the layout, and everything else) is available for free (and under an open license) on the Net?

From the author's standpoint, it can get interesting as well. Linux, remember, is given away for free. Tough for a derivative product to harm its sales, because there aren't any sales in the first place. Not so with a book. Also, resellers of Linux don't make their money selling the product, they make it through servicing the product. Also not so with a book, because there's very little service necessary (unless you count an official Web site that you direct readers to where you'd assimilate new information and such, but it's still not quite the same).

Imagine publishing a terrific book under copyleft that's well received by the community. Then, 6 additional publishers republish it. So now there are 6 publishers making money from your book and not paying you a nickel for it, and your sales are cut dramatically because of all the "competition," especially since your book will be likely to have the highest price point of the bunch.

It's true that that in this scenario the overall community may benefit from a greater distribution of the work, but it's also been my experience that authors like to be paid for their work. I've heard some suggestions for possibly trying to get around a scenario like this, but I'd be interested in hearing what all of you think. Is copyleft publishing going to be the next wave in publishing, or is it an idea whose time won't come?

David Fugate, Literary Agent, Waterside Productions, Inc.