Why Use an Open License?

In the case of a textbook, this begs the question:  “Why are you providing your book to everyone at no cost?”  I can’t answer either question for your particular situation, but I can give you my reasons for using an open license for my textbook, A First Course in Linear Algebra.

A promise.  By giving readers and teachers an unrevocable right to make and distribute copies, there is no edition-churn and no possibility of the book going out-of-print.  It is a promise that the book will always be available.  If you have ever built a course around a book, just to see it go out-of-print, you’ll understand.  And because I also distribute the LaTeX source, anyone else can maintain the text if I become unable, or uninterested, in continuing to do so.

Quality control.  I believe readers are more inclined to contribute corrections when they know you are providing the book for free.  My experience with my book and Judson’s abstract algebra text is that the quality can far surpass that of commercial texts.  And by making corrections available rapidly via Twitter, and by posting new editions, these corrections can reach readers very quickly.  I now offer my own students $5 for each mathematically significant error, confident that they will not find very many.

A responsibility.  Notice too, that if I am unreasonable in accepting legitimate changes from contributors, anyone is free to fork the book and distribute the new version containing their changes.  So I have placed myself under some obligation to be reasonable and prompt about responding to suggestions and making corrections (and you know that prior to using the book).

Improvements for all.  If you make changes to my book (hopefully improvements), and distribute the changed version, then you must use the same license.  In this way, I require that changes by others remain available to all.

Duplication.  Why do I have over thirty introductory linear algebra textbooks in my office?  Do we need that many?  Certainly, my book will not work for every course (for example, it would not be appropriate for a class full of engineering students) but maybe three or four quality open texts on linear algebra would be sufficient.  I would rather contribute one of these few texts and work to see it become as effective as possible.  When I started in 2004 I would say, “The world does not need another linear algebra text, but it does need a free linear algebra textbook.”

Another reason for not using a commercial publisher: I have never missed a deadline on my book project.

So this should help explain why I have chosen the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).  I have some strong feelings about licenses that include a non-commercial clause.  More on that later.

2 thoughts on “Why Use an Open License?

  1. Pingback: Open Licenses for Textbooks | Beezer in a Box

  2. I hope Professor Mead is right and that the reality lives up to the hype about all of this. What gives me pause is that Apple is is etnreing the textbook distribution business in partnership with McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Those two companies, along with a few others, are responsible for the outrageous prices of textbooks (of course, the college Professors who assign overpriced textbooks are even more responsible).The publishers have every motivation to insure that textbooks continue to be priced at ridiculous levels and I have a sneaking suspicion that they are embracing Apple in the hope that it will protect them from the company that has really shown an interest in cutting book prices; Amazon.It should be remembered that when E-Readers first came out, Amazon insisted that it would not sell any book in electronic form for more than $9.99; this infuriated the publishing world. When Apple introduced the I-Pad, it agreed to let publishers set E-Book prices. Almost immediately publishers began refusing access to their copyrighted property to Amazon and instead opted for E-sales through the Apple Book Store.A perfect example of this is Professor Mead’s wonderful book, “God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.” I purchased it for the Kindle at the Amazon bookstore about a year ago for $9.99. Now Amazon is charging $14.99 for the same book; an almost 50 percent increase. There are essentially no costs to the publisher once the E-book is formatted in electronic form. Although I don’t know, my guess is that Professor Mead pockets significantly less than 50 percent of what Amazon is charging. I suspect that most of the profit goes to the publisher (Random House) essentially for doing nothing.Had Apple supported the Amazon strategy of charging no more than $9.99, the publishing industry would have had no choice but to relent. By allowing publishers to set the price of their books (which should, in my opinion be an antitrust violation), Apple insured that E-books would be more expensive for everyone.As a result of Apple’s decision, it was Amazon that was forced to relent and the price of E-Books has been rising ever since. My guess is that this is a move by the textbook publishers to preempt even greater price cutting by Amazon later on.We will have to see how all of this works out. The best hope for falling textbook prices is that disintermediation comes to the publishing world in a big way. Hopefully textbook authors will eventually sell their wares through companies with a wide distribution system like Amazon and Apple and that the publishing companies themselves become extinctUltimately it’s up to college and universities and the professors who assign texts. If they insist that their students purchase overpriced books, the students will have no choice. If they learn to respect the financial constraints that most students operate under, they will assign less expensive texts and the price of all texts will come down.Ultimately it wouldn’t surprise me if professors and their employers (colleges and universities) go into the textbook publishing business together while using Apple and Amazon to distribute the texts that they jointly produce and market. Most texts are written by professors and the university logo lends quite a bit of luster to any piece of intellectual property. The textbook publishing companies are simply becoming extraneous.This is a good thing.

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