Free As In Free Speech?

The American Library profession is at a crossroads: will our future be marked by the predominance of free and open source integrated library systems and open access journal publishing, or will we continue to use proprietary software and tolerate barriers to scholarly information? Does it matter?

The ethical and philosophical implications of open source and open access were debated at the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference in Chicago this past July. Keynote speakers included Richard Stallman on open source free software, and Peter Suber on the open access movement.

Richard Stallman, I found out, is something of a celebrity in the computer science world. He is founder of the GNU Project and president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman has a particular conception of free software that he promotes and defends with great verve. Stallman believes the terminological distinction between free software and open source software is important. Free software to Stallman means that the user has the “freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes.” Stallman believes these freedoms are not only about price, but about promoting sharing and cooperation. One of Stallman’s slogans is “free as in free speech, not free beer.”

The Library community, I’ve noticed (here, here, and here), tends to use the phrase open source. (Casey Bisson uses them both in “Free at Last” a recent American Libraries column only accessible to… ahem.) Systems librarians have long been fed up with the lack of development of proprietary OPACs and are now experimenting with open source models.

“Open source” originated at a strategy session in 1998 in which it was decided to “dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds.”

As a marketing strategy, this maneuver seems to have worked. Open source software is all over the place, and mainly for pragmatic reasons–the open development process is producing better software. And besides a few licensing details, open source software and free software are very similar and share the same goals. So does it matter what it’s called?

In their fascinating new book, Decoding Liberation, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter sidestep the issue by using “free and open source software.” Chopra and Dexter explore and expand on the ethical issues raised by Stallman. They raise the interesting points that as a scientific discipline, computer science requires code to be publicly inspectable, and that in a world increasingly infused with code, “personal and social freedoms become the freedoms granted or restricted by software.”

(Chopra and Dexter are taking some flak over publishing their book with Routledge which is listing it at $95.00 with an eye toward the suckers who buy anything no matter how much it costs enabling publishers to make hefty profits and restrict knowledge from people the academic library market. Chopra and Dexter reveal why they went with Routledge and an interesting discussion is emerging on the differences between copyright in book publishing and copyright in software over at their blog.)

It’s time for the library community to start looking not only at the practical aspects of free and open source software but at the ethical issues as well. For Stallman, the development of free software is an ethical imperative. Chopra and Dexter raise issues of academic freedom and social responsibility. One thing I realized at the conference was how similar philosophically the library values of free speech and the hacker ethic of free software really are. What should be the future of academic libraries? More collaboration with programmers and more free and open source software for libraries which result in better services for users. Put that together with open access and we’ve got a vision that includes making scholarly information accessible to more people. If we’re not for that, what are we for?

10 thoughts on “Free As In Free Speech?”

  1. Glancing at that blog, I’m impressed that when the publisher said “Oh, that’s our standard clause,” the authors just accepted that. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but the publishers I’ve worked with have always been flexible on “standard” contract terms–some terms more than others.

    Of course, I’ve also never had a publisher suggest a $95 price–and all my books have been marketed strictly to libraries.

  2. I hadn’t realized that the “open source” terminology had taken root so effectively in the library community! The “free software” vs “open source” question is a really important one — Samir and I tried very hard not to sidestep it, and spend a fair amount of time in the book discussing the roots and implications of the difference.

    In the discussion about copyright and open access to books (generally, and perhaps ours in particular), which started on Biella Coleman’s blog, David Berry makes a provocative comment about the possible negative implications for libraries (and research in general) if free software notions are applied whole cloth to book publishing; I’d be interested to hear what librarians have to say about concerns like his.

    Walt, can you say more about your experience having your books published with more open copyright terms? We did have a couple more rounds of discussion with Routledge over the phone, but the outcome was the same (I didn’t want to try to give a blow-by-blow of a conversation I didn’t have notes for).

  3. A big problem with the debate at Biella is the assumption that libraries will buy the books that are too expensive for individuals to purchase; the other side of it is that “we have to charge that much because our only market is libraries.”

    Newsbreak: libraries aren’t buying that many books anymore. A scholarly press that assumes they’ll recoup their costs by jacking up prices hasn’t been paying attention. A scholarly book that sold copies to 1,000 libraries ten years ago might sell to 150 today. Maybe.

    Why is this? budgets are flat at best, it’s much easier to not buy a book than to cancel a journal or database subscription, and the demand isn’t all that great.

    I do believe there is value added by scholarly publishers, and I think people (and libraries!) are willing to pay for it (up to a point). But having a book available online doesn’t necessarily limit its sales. It certainly hasn’t meant that there’s no market for Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (Penguin) or for Yochi Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks (Yale). What it does is increase influence. People can search, discover, link, share. And buy the book because it looks pretty interesting once they’ve run into it. I bought both of the books I just mentioned for our library even though I knew they were online. It’s a lot easier to read the book in print, and I thought our students would be more inclined to read them in that format. They didn’t cost that much, either.

    I know you probably didn’t know what they were going to charge when you signed the contract, but it’s too bad you weren’t able to get them to agree to a Creative Commons license – or that they aren’t bringing out a trade paperback that’s more affordable, because that price tag will certainly limit sales.

  4. Barbara, yes, I think publishers have certainly misread the market at libraries. I’m not quite sure of how well they’re tuned into library purchase practices or the market for books that are also available online.

    Incidentally, I hope you read the comments at Biella’s blog which tried to explain how we lacked the requisite academic clout to be able to negotiate terms to our liking (Lawrence Lessig is a Stanford Law School professor with prior publications – and a man who wrote briefs in Eldred vs. Ashcroft; Benkler is a Yale Law School professor with an impressive background as well – our backgrounds, as we explained, are markedly different, but they’re changing with this book). One kind of capital we hoped to accumulate with this book was of the reputational kind so that we could negotiate terms more to our liking down the line.

  5. One little addendum. Here is something the publishers did say (which makes me a little optimistic that we might be able to get something cheaper for class use though its not clear whether the Paperbacks Direct program could kick in quicker than the 18 month timeframe that the editor is speaking of):

    “If sales and classroom demand are both demonstrably high 18 months following publication, we may consider a paperback run.
    Routledge is also initiating a print-on-demand service known as
    Paperbacks Direct that is dedicated to making some of our high-priced library monographs available in paper for course adoption if needed. If the numbers are not there to sustain a full paperback run, we may still be able to offer paperback copies to interested professors and individuals on a print-on-demand basis, but again no sooner than 18 months from initial hardback publication.”

  6. Thanks, Samir. This is an old dilemma. Faculty on tenure and promotion committees ask publishers to vet their candidates for them by proving their worthiness through publication; junior faculty feel they aren’t in a position to negotiate for that vetting. The reader/scholar is left out of the equation – and this is what I think Marc was raising in his post. If libraries support access to information, shouldn’t we put that principle to work in both the content we provide and in the tools we use to access that content? That means giving up our cash cow role and agitating for better publishing models.

    Routledge’s strategy to charge libraries (which some of the posters at Biella assumed will get books for them) a whole lot of money – and then adjust the price down if they can sell it to other markets – is pretty sleazy.

    I’m not criticizing you for this – but the line about “high priced library monograph” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m hearing someone in the background whispering “those suckers!”

    The sad truth is, there are a lot of books that libraries aren’t buying in large enough numbers for their content to be widely available. I don’t see how this is sustainable. And, romantic that I am, I value books too much to not care.

  7. ACRL, as a non-profit publisher, is experimenting with different models for its non-serial monographic publishing. Our market is also the academic library market. Our agreements with authors, our pricing, and our relationships would appear to be quite different than those authors and editors experience with commercial publishers.
    Within the next two weeks we will publish “Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester.” This book will be published in standard print and will also be available as open access downloadable content. Our preliminary sense is that there are uses and needs for both formats.
    The other thing I would say here is that large print runs of anything are pretty much a thing of the past. Those large print runs might reduce production cost but drive up cost of warehousing and sales and therefore provoke a publisher to raise the price of the book. In an interesting comment at a recent ALPSP seminar a publishing financial expert said a best seller is not one that sells hotly for a time but one that exhausts its print run. This impressed me as a key concept of publishing success. Perhaps commercial publishers haven’t latched onto this nor, as Barbara says, the flatter budgets with which libraries are living.
    ACRL is eager to publish interesting content related to academic libraries and higher education. And we are working to experiment with publishing models and with open/cost models to ensure excellent content really is available to colleagues.

  8. No matter what we call our software, it’s quite clear that the economic advantages of Open Source are a direct result of the freedoms of Free Software. But your suggestion that Free Software is about more than just reducing costs or improving our systems is spot on.

    In our grandest moments, we argue for the role of our libraries in strengthening democracy and building a free society. That’s the same position Stallman takes for Free Software.

  9. Maybe of interest: I recently blogged about linkages and similarities among FOSS, open access, and open education.

    I’m not a librarian (nor do I play one on TV), but I do think that libraries should support FOSS not only for practical but also for ethical reasons. Unfortunately, I don’t think that saying “Well, it’s like free speech” is a good explanation for the reason why. I feel like I haven’t seen a good articulation of why libraries (in particular) should support FOSS. Maybe it’s in the book; I wouldn’t know as I can’t afford it 😉

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