Monday, April 24, 2006

Creative Commons: publishing paradigm?

(The author apologises in advance for the gratuitous use of the word "paradigm"). I have been looking at the use of Creative Commons by businesses for a video-conference that I'll be involved in this week. One of the most intriguing potential uses of CC is in to revolutionise the publishing industry. I am not talking of open access journals and blogging, but traditional book publishing.

Could publishers become a thing of the past? Have we all become our own publishers? There are people who are happy to forego the intermediaries and publish directly online using CC (Ariel Vercelli in Argentina has been doing just that). Others use CC and some form of traditional publishing, such as Cory Doctorow. Then there are places like that provide printing on demand, and are certainly compatible with CC.

While researching on this topic, I found a very astute comment from Neal Stephenson, who is one of my favourite writers. This is a 2004 interview in Slashdot. Talking about CC and whether new publishing models make season, Stephenson says:

"Publishing is a very ancient and crafty industry that existed and flourished before the idea of copyright even existed. When copyright came into existence, the publishing industry dealt with it and moved on. My suspicion is that everything that's been going on lately will amount to a sort of fire drill that will force publishing to scurry around and make some new arrangements so that they can get back to making money for themselves and for authors.

You can use the brick-and-mortar bookstore as a way to think about this. There was a time maybe five years ago when many people were questioning whether brick-and-mortar bookstores were going to survive the onslaught of online retailers. Now, if you take the narrow view that a bookstore is nothing more than a machine that swaps money for books, then it follows that there's no need for a physical store. But here we are five years later. Some bookstores have gone out of business, it's true. But there are big, beautiful bookstores all over the place, with sofas and coffee bars and author appearances and so on. Why? Because it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books.

Likewise, if you think of a publisher as a machine that makes copies of bits and sells them, then you're going to predict the elimination of publishers. But that's only the smallest part of what publishers actually do. This is not to say that electronic distribution via CC is just a fad, any more than online bookstores are a fad. They will keep on going in parallel, and all of this will get sorted out in time."
I usually run into the apparent dichotomy in people's minds: either proprietary or non-proprietary models will survive, some do not see room for co-existence.

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