We freed up a book! We made Open Access work!

20 Jun

I was really please to see that the first Unglue It campaign has worked.

Clay Shirky wrote about the idea of Cognitive Surplus (Wikipedia), which is (roughly) what gives us Open Source. We’re not all profit-driven animals; quite a lot have some spare time and expertise and good will that they apply for the greater good (and a small amount of recognition). I guess that’s part of the drivers behind charitable work too.

Kickstarter seems to have tapped a similar vein, with a bit of financial surplus thrown in, despite the various recessions and economic downturns we are all suffering (except for our Chinese or Australian friends, of course). Seth Godin (whoever he is) had the goal of raising $40,000 to do a book called The Icarus Deception: Why Make Art, and has raised more than $208,000 with 26 days to go! He wrote:

“Please help me show my publisher, the bookstores and anyone with a book worth writing that it’s possible to start a project with a show of support on Kickstarter.

“The Icarus Deception is an experiment in publishing, an opportunity for real growth, an invitation to challenge your friends and something you can touch.

“This is a book about the mythology of success (and failure) and how our economy rewards people who are willing to stand up and stand out. For too long, we’ve been seduced into believing we should do less. It’s time to redefine what we’re capable of…”

Seth is going to create a standard, copyright printed book for sale, and good luck to him, too.

Unglue.it is similar but different. They want to help give existing books to the world. They say

“Unglue.it offers a win-win solution: Crowdfunding. We run pledge campaigns for books; you chip in. When, together, we’ve reached the goal, we’ll reward the book’s creators and issue an unglued ebook.”

They’ve been running their first 5 campaigns; only one of them looks like making its funding target. A new edition of “Oral Literature in Africa“, by Ruth H Finnegan.

“Besides being a goldmine for scholars, [Oral Literature in Africa] is a delight for the general reader… The people and animals and spirits of Africa live, laugh, weep and quarrel between the covers of this book.” — Journal of African and Asian Studies

First published in 1970 by Oxford University Press, this classic study has been hailed as “the single most authoritative work on oral literature”. It traces the history of story-telling in Africa, and brings to life the diverse forms of creativity across the African continent. Author Ruth Finnegan is thought to have “almost single-handedly created the field of ethnography of language” with this book, and it continues to be a go-to text for anyone studying African culture.

However, despite its enormous scope and popularity, Finnegan’s book is now out of print. It is particularly hard to find in Africa, where its original retail price was beyond the budget of most university libraries. The non-profit organization Open Book Publishers is endeavoring to make this definitive book freely available to African students and scholars — and indeed to any interested readers around the world. The Unglued Ebook will be particularly friendly to people in places with slow Internet connections: once a copy is downloaded, the book can be read offline.”

The ebook will come with some oral recordings as well. The target was $7,500 by 22 June, and it has now received pledges of $7,561 with 2 days to go. I checked on COPAC, and 22 of the libraries contributing to COPAC have the 1970 edition, while 11 have the 1976 edition. I don’t know whether any of them contributed to the campaign (although I did ask, on twitter); I certainly hope so, not least as an experiment to help find out the extra value to their community of scholars of a CC version of an existing book. As far as I can see, most of those pledging were individuals (including me); I assume the unglue.it team are doing an analysis, although whether they will publish it, I don’t know. The last couple of thousand were raised very quickly, so we might have had a few large (institutional?) pledges.

The other 4 campaigns are nowhere near their targets (and are asking for a lot more). I don’t really know what the books are about, and they didn’t light any fires for me. They also looked a bit of a lost cause from the start, compared with the Oral Lit book.

These movements rather contradict the Tragedy of the Commons idea, “a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen”. I feared for a while that unglue.it would suffer from this problem, as if I (or you) do nothing, there’s a good chance we would get the book for free anyway. Kickstarter, OTOH, tends to offer perks, like a copy of the actual book sent to you etc. So there might be more rational self-interest involved [there].

I was also a bit troubled about whether a book of this nature couldn’t be made freely available anyway. I doubt Ruth Finnegan ever made much [money] from it. Why couldn’t she just donate it to the public domain? Well, I guess she could, but there’s a LOT of work in good academic writing, and it’s very poorly rewarded. There’s so much extra value in a freely available, CC-licensed ebook, I think it’s reasonable that she gets a reward for giving it to us. Thankyou, Ruth, thankyou the unglue.it team, and thankyou, the other 259 ungluers!

[Updated to correct typos and grammar.]


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