<latemp_subject "Why Closed Books are So 19th-Century" />
<latemp_meta_desc "This document will explain why it is a bad idea, in this day and age, to write a book that is not available online for everyone to see, link to, redistribute, and possibly modify." />
This document will explain why it is a bad idea, in this day and age, to write
a book that is not available online for everyone to see, link to, redistribute,
and possibly modify.
Recently Ask Bjørn Hansen (of perl.org and Perl fame) has <a
Interesting. Is this book available online for free?
Why would it be available for free?
Please support the publisher and the author by paying them the $20 (Amazon
US) or the £13 (Amazon UK) to buy the book.
This essay is my reply to that.
Since the invention of the Press, the traditional method of spreading knowledge
was to write a book, and get a publisher to publish it. Indeed, we can recall
many important and influential historical books. However, as computer
networking became faster, less error-prone, and more ubiquitous - a different
medium of communicating knowledge has emerged: the Internet. To
Darwin’s <i>The Origin of the Species</i></a>,
The Internet has one overarching feature that makes it superior to the
technologies that preceded it: it can copy arbitrary blobs of data from one
place to another at virtually no cost, in virtually no time, with virtually
no control. This is not a bug. This is what the Internet is supposed to do.
As a result, more and more people depend on the Internet for getting
information, and getting more knowledge and understanding. Not only does the
Internet allow information to be retrieved, it also allows one to publish
information and collaborate on it. Perhaps the most prominent examples for
that are the various <a href="http://www.wikimedia.org/">Wikimedia projects</a>
of which <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/">the English wikipedia is the
largest and most popular</a>. Thousands of large-scale contributors, and
100’s of thousands of minor ones, have individually created an
online encyclopedia that contains mostly comprehensive information about
practically every imaginable topic.
And despite all that, we can often see that books are getting published
on paper, and are either completely not available online, or their free
re-distribution is restricted. They are often available on
Peer-to-Peer networks or illegally, but their use is still restricted,
and complicates things.
In this article, I’d like to note why non-open books (or at least books that
are not available online) are as pointless as
<h2 id="some-quotes">Some Quotes</h2>
In my older essay <a href="$(ROOT)/philosophy/case-for-file-swapping/">the
Case for File Swapping</a>, I made the claim that while copyrights are
an important concept, the Law must not restrict non-commercial distribution
of copyrighted works. Naturally, due to a generation gap,
governments and copyright-owners have not yet given in to the fact that the
Internet practically changes the ability to regulate the free distribution
of copyrighted material. Therefore, the Law in most countries was still not
As producers of copyrightable works it is therefore our choice whether
what we generate will be available online for all the public to experience
(and possibly re-distribute and enhance) or that we’d rather make it an
“All-Rights-Reserved” document that is only available offline or illegally.
Here’s what Paul Graham <a href="http://www.paulgraham.com/web20.html">wrote
about online encyclopedias</a>:
The second big element of Web 2.0 is democracy. We now have several
examples to prove that <a
surpass professionals, when they have
the right kind of system to channel their efforts. <a
href="http://wikipedia.org/">Wikipedia</a> may be the
most famous. Experts have given Wikipedia middling reviews, but they miss
the critical point: it’s good enough. And it’s free, which means people
actually read it. On the web, <b>articles you have to pay for might as well
not exist</b>. Even if you were willing to pay to read them yourself,
you can’t link to them. They’re not part of the conversation.
Graham continues to <a
One measure of the incompetence of newspapers is that <b>so many still
make you register</b> to read stories. I have yet to find a blog that tried
Mr. Graham is not the only or the first one to say things along this line.
href="http://catb.org/~esr/">Eric S. Raymond</a> had written his
<a href="http://catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html">“How to Become a Hacker”</a> (= software enthusiast), and has been propagating
similar ideas in
<a href="http://catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/">his “The
Cathedral and the Bazaar” series of essays</a> (an older version of which was
also published as a paperback book). <a
from the guide:
<p> 2. <b>No problem should ever have to be solved twice.</b> </p>
<p> Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn’t be
wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating new
problems waiting out there. </p>
<p> To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of
other hackers is precious — so much so that it’s almost a moral duty for
you to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away
just so other hackers can solve new problems instead of having to
perpetually re-address old ones. </p>
Now, if you ask me, publishing a non-open book is a classical example of
requiring other people to solve the problem you’ve solved again, because they
cannot share your work with other people.
<h2 id="the-problems">The Problems with Closed Books</h2>
I can think of several important problems with the fact that some books
<h3 id="no-linking-problem">1. Their Closed Nature Makes One
Unable to Effectively Link to Them</h3>
If I want to point someone at a text on the wikipedia, I can give him a
direct link to the article, or even a sub-section of it, an anchor or
that of a previous version. On the other hand, with the online Britannica, the
link will likely not work, because my friend won’t be registered. This is
even worse for books that are not available online.
In this day and age, people give links in chats (Instant Messaging, IRC, etc.),
on web pages and other documents, in blog posts and comments, on web forums,
in emails, and in an increasing and more diverse forms of Internet mediums.
They are also given in many non-Internet methods: books, newspapers, scientific
papers, notes, voice calls, SMSes, etc. People who get these links expect
these links to just work and show them the goods - not require registration
So if you’re making your web resource closed, you’re likely to alienate
a large amount of people who will experience it, tell it to their friends,
link to it on their blogs, etc.
If you’re worried that without registration you won’t be able to track what
visitors do - don’t. There are several software packages that allow you to
track what every individual visitor did, and deploying and utilising
them is justifiable if you want to better monitor your visitors. I personally
don’t go to such extents, because I feel I have better ways to spend time on
making my site more attractive, like by writing more material, or by doing
white-hat publicity and <a
Engine Optimisation</a>, but your kilometrage may vary depending on your
resources and philosophy.
<h3 id="quoting-problem">2. It Makes Quoting and Re-using The Books Harder</h3>
It’s much easier to quote an online document than an offline one. Either
by “copy-and-paste” or by inspecting the HTML markup. Compare this to a
paperback book where you have to type the text character-by-character
or use OCR. Or to <a href="http://safari.oreilly.com/">O’Reilly’s Safari
of <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management">Digital
Restrictions Management (DRM)</a>. It’s nothing the “View Formatted Source”
of some Firefox extensions cannot cope with, but it’s still annoying.
On the other hand, a freely available document can easily be quoted,
re-used and re-distributed. One can save it as a self-contained file and send
it to friends. One can refute it part by part. One can quote it in the
context of grander document (like I did earlier).
<h3 id="not-preventing-piracy-problem">3. Closing the Books Doesn’t Prevent
When J. K. Rowling released the 6th Harry Potter book, she decided not to make
an Electronic version available, in order to prevent piracy. However, it took
than 24 hours before “pirates” had made a complete
online version available</a> for everyone to read. Now, if the publishers
had made an electronic version available, then at least they could have
made money by selling many electronic copies.
It’s not hard to find books online illegitimately. There’s a
<a href="http://www.unix.com.ua/orelly/">Ukrainian site carrying many O’Reilly
titles online</a> (if you don’t like the link then send me a
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DMCA">DMCA takedown notice</a>), which
is easily found using a Google search. Whenever people give a link to this site
on Perl IRC channels or mailing lists, many Perl hackers mention that
it is illegal and should not be used. But it’s there and accessible, and many
people, especially young ones, won’t feel or know they’re doing something
wrong. And if you ask me, there’s <a
wrong with non-commercial redistribution of publicly-available
There’s also the element of convenience. Some people will buy a book because
it is a physical object. If we take Harry Potter as an example, then most people
will not be content reading it on the computer. Moreover, Joel Spolsky
has published <a
href="http://www.joelonsoftware.com/">many articles on his
<i>Joel on Software</i> site</a>, and later compiled many of them into
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Joel-Software-Occasionally-Developers-Designers/dp/1590593898">a book</a>.
The latter has become a best-seller, and even I decided to buy it as a gift
for a previous workplace, so they could read it and learn from it.
Similarly, after reading the <a href="http://www.shlomifish.org/philosophy/books-recommends/#programming_perl">3rd
edition of <i>Programming Perl</i></a> which I borrowed from the Israeli Perl
Mongers library, I decided that I liked it so much, and so bought it so I can
read it at home.
By making your book available online, you’re giving yourself a huge publicity,
and earning a lot of repute. You can also make some extra income from
ads, store affiliations, and other revenue. If it’s under a strict-enough
licence, then you can also make money by licensing it for commercial use. And
some people will still want to buy a paperback book, an electronic copy,
or license it on commercial book-viewing sites (such as the previously
In short, keeping your work closed undermines legitimate uses, but does not
prevent illegitimate ones. So you become bald from here and from here.
(A correspondent to this article mentioned the book <a
from the Madding Gerund</i></a>, which is a compilation of articles from
the authors’ blog
<a href="http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/"><i>Language Log</i></a>
, which has been selling very well, as another example of a book based on
articles from a blog.)
<h3 id="critique-problem">4. Closing the Books Makes Critique and
If you have a non-publicly-available book, and you discover an error in it,
then you must give some convoluted instructions for finding it. This is instead
of just linking to the relevant part, using a commenting service such as
<a href="http://www.stumbleupon.com/">StubmleUpon</a> or
<a href="http://digg.com/">Digg</a> or even being able to use the page’s
inline commenting system.
For example, I was once offered a contract by an O’Reilly editor to review the
new edition of
<a href="http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/9780596527327/"><i>HTML & XHTML:
The Definitive Guide</i></a>. I detected a lot of problems there (in an
good book), and reported them, and eventually received the money and a
Now I hope my commentary has been integrated into the final version, but still
cannot be certain of it, and while I still have a copy of the drafts, I don’t
have access to the published book. If I were going to buy the book, and wanted
to comment on it, I wouldn’t be able to legally point my readers to the exact
place, so they can read it themselves.
No text is set in stone. It is likely that even if you don’t allow
Wiki-style editing to the document, you’d like people to comment on it, and
revise the document in the future, and allow some derivative works based
and inspired from it.
<h3 id="admission-of-failure">5. It’s an Admission of Failure</h3>
Let’s say you’ve found that the current built-in documentation of a software
project is inadequate and you’ve decided to write a closed book remedying
it. What does it say? That the online documentation is bad, and that thanks
to you, it will remain this way. So don’t do that.
On the IRC, I discussed my frustration with the current state of
of the documentation of
<a href="http://git.or.cz/">git</a>, whose commands have extremely
terse and unintelligible <tt>--help</tt> displays, and exhaustive
and confusing man pages. Then someone told me he suggested
<a href="http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/">Randal Schwartz</a> to
write an O’Reilly book about git. Now, if this book will indeed be written
(and not made available online for free), it <b>will not improve the bad
documentation</b> of the current system. Instead, it will be an admission of
I voiced similar concerns about the Perl documentation back in my time
in my old <a href="$(ROOT)/philosophy/perl-newcomers/">“Usability”
of the Perl Online World for Newcomers</a> essay. Quoting from it:
I don’t have anything against people trying to make money off Perl by selling
books. But these people are the same people who are the Perl project leaders,
and so are responsible to make sure Perl is well-documented. If people get
frustrated learning Perl, and become unhappy with it, they will criticise
“Perl”. Not the Perl documentation. Not the Perl community. Not even the Perl
leaders. “Perl”. If Larry Wall et al. care enough about Perl, they should make
sure it has good online documentation.
Such books need not be available online if their authors so much don’t desire.
However, Perl is very hard to learn from public electronic resources alone. I
believe there may even be a clash of interests because the core Perl people
also write them and so may not have enough motivation to improve the online
documentation. Making them public will resolve that.
I may have been a bit too blunt there, but I think you get my point.
Also consider <a href="http://www.ruby-doc.org/">Ruby-Doc</a>, which
illustrates the pathetic state of the online Ruby documentation (at
least in English). Only one available free book, and it already has two
closed newer editions, which are more up-to-date. And it doesn’t even cover
the so-called “Ruby-on-Rails”.
Many newer books were published, but none of them were made available online,
and I was told that what most Ruby newcomers do is download illegal copies of
If you care enough about your technology or topic, make sure to publish
your work online too. Otherwise, you’re admitting that the current
documentation is inadequate, that you care more for getting money than for
making your work more popular, and that you don’t care enough about the
legitimate uses that I mentioned.
<h3 id="does-not-hurt-sales">6. Keeping the books closed does not Encourage
Many books (and other works) that were made available online have become
best-sellers. <a href="http://www.nin.com/">Nine Inch Nails</a> have
placed their <a href="http://ghosts.nin.com/">Ghosts I-IV</a> album
online and made it legally distributable, and it turned out to be a huge
financial success. After I downloaded the first part, I opted to pay
5 U.S. Dollars for downloading the rest, and many people did the same.
I also mentioned the <i>Joel on Software</i> book and also of note is
<a href="http://paulgraham.com/hackpaint.html">Paul Graham’s Hackers
& Painters Book</a>, which contains essays he had written on his
site or placed there since.
There are many other examples. Generally, most closed books fail in the
marketplace, so keeping them closed won’t likely make them more popular.
Making your book available online can also give you free publicity, and allow
people to experience it before buying it, which may also help your book
In this day and age, you should look into online publishing as another
way to reach your audience, and to allow them to experience what you
had to say. As a creative person, I want the maximal possible number of people
to experience and make use of my work, and I’m sure it’s the same for you.
Putting legal and technical obstacles in the way of people who want to
share, comment, expand upon and refer others to your work, is something that
you should know better than to do.
Optionally, you should consider applying more elements of
to your work’s legal status, as this will make it even more usable. Refer to
such projects as <a href="http://creativecommons.org/">the
Creative Commons</a> for more information.
Thanks to <a href="http://jwn.name/">firespeaker</a> for doing some
copy-editing of this document.
<a href="http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/">The Online Books Page</a>
- an index of over 30,000 gratis books on the Web.
<a href="http://www.gutenberg.org/">Project Gutenberg</a> - a collection
of free texts of books that have become Public Domain.
<a href="http://en.wikibooks.org/">Wikibooks</a> - a wiki for collaborating
on free (GNU FDL) online books.
Software and Free Manuals”</a> - Richard Stallman’s call-for-arms for good
<a href="http://creativecommons.org/">Creative Commons</a> - license
works under free or semi-free licences, and search for such works.
<a href="http://use.perl.org/~Shlomi+Fish/journal/36730">on my use.perl.org Journal</a>
<a href="http://use.perl.org/~chromatic/journal/36732">on chromatic’s Blog</a>
<a href="http://use.perl.org/~gizmo_mathboy/journal/36815">on gizmo-mathboy’s
Journal</a> (in response to what chromatic wrote.)
<a href="http://use.perl.org/~Shlomi+Fish/journal/36812">“Dealing with
Approval Addiction (and Implied Stress Periods)”</a> - note on my use.perl.org
blog in reflection to what chromatic said.
<a href="http://www.reddit.com/info/6qr1x/comments/">On Reddit.com</a>
<cc_by_british_blurb year="2008" />
<h2 id="meta_info">Meta Information</h2>
<dd><a href="http://www.shlomifish.org/">Shlomi Fish</a></dd>
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