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In the spring of 2005, as I was discovering the joys of podcasting, I was looking online for an audiobook to listen to while cooking. I stumbled on a project by AKMA, to get people - volunteers - to read chapters of Lawrence Lessig’s book, Free Culture. A number of people chipped in, some famous names (I didn’t know those names at the time), and I listened to “Free Culture” over the course of several evenings. That was the most concrete inspiration for LibriVox, but of course there were others.

Probably the most significant of which is Richard Stallman and the free software movement. I had been aware of open source for a long time (I did not yet know the distinction between Free Software/philosophy; and Open Source/methodology). I loved the concept, the philosophy and the idea. As a non-technical guy, though, I was not able to participate as a coder, and in most cases the software required too much tech input for me to use. But the idea, I loved.

Sometime in the fall of 2004, a friend of mine who was doing a Master’s in Environmental Studies, with a focus on Biotech and Intellectual Property, asked me to accompany Stallman from one speaking engagement (at talk at UQAM about free software), to the biotech class, where rms had agreed to do a talk on IP in general, and how (he believes) it stifles innovation. My first meeting with rms was … quirky … I knew very little about free software at the time, other than a general interest, so I didn’t have much to say; Stallman carried an old beaten-up laptop in a plastic grocery bag, and when I left him for a minute to confirm where the class was, I came back to find him sitting on the hallway floor, typing away. Other than that, when I asked how a non-tech person should get into free software, he suggested I install GNU/Linux on an old machine, and just hack away till I got comfortable. Which I never did.

But still, I was inspired to read more of rms’ essays, and to listen to much of it too (scroll down to speeches and interviews). I was curious to read what academics - philosophers and political scientists - had to say about this very active and successful pseudo-anarchist movement: amazingly, very little. But I read what I found, including the dotCommunist Manifesto by Eben Moglen, Columbia Law prof, and legal mind behind the GNU Public License, the brilliant bit of institutional underpinning on which the success of the free software movement built: you are free to use copy modify and redistribute this software, as long as whatever you use it for maintains those same freedoms.

The free software movement was a revelation: here was a man (Stallman) who rejected the idea of proprietary software… and instead of thundering around the world complaining about software practices he didn’t like, he did something much more interesting. He started building an operating system, gnu (gnu’s not unix), to be a free piece of software for anyone to use. His objective was long term, and he knew he had to start with the basics. He wanted all software to be free, and he knew he had to start at the bottom, on the operating system. GNU became the kernel for the famous Linux operating system, the posterchild of the open source movement. And Stallman continued (and continues) his evangelizing for free software, a movement that has, some 25 years lated, built an impressive array of free open versions of software anyone can use, copy, modify and distribute for free. Now most of the web sites you surf (google, amazon) are built on GNU/linux-based servers. There are free/open source software alternatives to Microsoft Office (open office), Internet Explorer (Firefox), Internet Outlook (Thunderbird), Photoshop (GIMP), and a good audio-editing suite called Audacity.

Though I was excited about the practical software applications of free software, it was the concept behind it I found fascinating. Here was a successful movement built not so much in opposition to the predominant ethos of, at least, the past 40 years (ie, greed is good, the only useful motivator for large scale problems is the profit motive); but rather in parallel. A place where those inclined were free to contribute their time and energy for large projects …for reasons other than personal financial gain. And more: there was a theoretical and legal framework for doing so, and the movement was successful. I started using some of this software around this time, and it turned out some of it was better than the commercial alternatives. I was impressed that from a humble start at a free operating system, and based on clear articulation of ideals, such a powerful movement had grown, and was now even threatening the proprietary model. And further: I wondered whether (and how) this model could be applied to non-software projects.

I discovered blogging at the same time, and here was another revelation: free, easy publishing. Publishing on the web had been around for years, of course, but not for me. This was different: I didn’t need to know html, and I didn’t have to pay a dime. I sensed the world shifting.

From free software I found the Creative Commons movement … which aimed to do for culture what Free Software and Open Source had done for software. Spearheaded by Stanford Law prof Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons project provided a legal framework for those who wanted to make sure their art would be available to other artists to build on, and brought renewed thinking about the importance of the commons, and the public domain.

Creative Commons grew out of a belief that total corporate control of culture is not in society’s best interest. Art has always been built on previous art, and the notion that every bit of cultural heritage should be owned by someone, or rather, something: a corporation … especially corporations keen on charging vast sums, or threatening to sue anyone who they deemed had infringed their copyright. Creative Commons offered a space (legally defined) for people to contribute their art outside of traditional copyright, allowing certain uses of the works. Again, this was a parallel movement built for artists who wanted to maintain the importance of a commons for new art.

As I was thinking about all this stuff, I was working on a writing contract for a friend, who was doing a big exhibit for the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, on dinosaurs. The project included a number of information kiosks, essentially little web-sites packed with information and games. I was doing a fair bit of the writing, which required a significant amount of research. And as I plowed through this project, researching on the net, I found again and again that the best source of first-level information was Wikipedia. I had heard about this project too (this was in 2004), but had never paid it much heed: until I needed it. Again, here was a voluntary effort, parallel to other sources of information, and often better than anything else I could find (for free) online. I used wikipedia extensively on that project, and as I was using it, I thought I should give back. Where articles in wikipedia were light on information that I had, I added what I could. I got hooked. The great thing about the project was, you could start an article on, say, the Western Interior Seaway, with very little information or attention to style. Someone else would be by to add to it, correct it; and you could continue to make improvements if you wanted. Harness humans’ interest in sharing information, in helping each other, and don’t force anyone to be an expert, let it grow slowly, and build an encyclopedia. The beauty was, what I added didn’t have to be perfect: just adding something constructive was enough participation. Taking a long view of things, eventually the wikipedia would improve. Don’t let it’s flaws at any given time detract from the larger picture, the larger plan: to become the most complete encyclopedia in the world, available to anyone for free on the internet.

A project I had investigated numerous times was built on a similar foundation: Project Gutenberg, which has been in existence since 1970, and is the real granddaddy of all free culture/information projects on the net. Gutenberg offers a library of some 20,000 free public domain texts, in many languages, in plain vanilla format. I had been to the site often but had never actually read a book from there … I’m not good at reading long texts in digital format. Still, knowing they were there was a great and important resource, especially since those texts could be used for anything: they were public domain.

At some point, as I was listening to huge numbers of podcasts, I heard Brewster Kahle’s talk: Universal Access to All Human Knowledge, a profoundly ambitious talk. In it Brewster argues that it is technically and financially feasible (for some couple of hundred million dollars, not such a big sum when you consider the scope of the project) to put all text, audio and video ever created by humans online and offer it up to the world (for free is Brewster’s idea, though he’s not so much an anti-copyright evangelizer as a promoter of digital access to a robust public domain). From this talk I found his project, the Internet Archive, and realized that there was a home for public domain and creative commons media, a place where storage and bandwidth were free, and with a vision to keep those files forever. A modern version of the Library of Alexandria, with redundancy and back-up systems (servers all over the world) built in to avoid that tragedy of one fire.

The pieces were coming together. The last bit was Audacity: a free, open source, easy to use audio editor. I tested it out. It was easy.

So I had a format (podcasting), a publishing tool (wordpress), a philosophy (free software), a legal framework (creative commons/public domain), a source of texts (gutenberg.org), free hosting (archive.org), free audio editing software (audacity), an approach to information creation (wikipedia), and a model project (AKMA). And finally, after all that stuff mixed around in my brain for a while, I had an idea. Put it all together to make public domain audio books. How about all public domain books? Why not?

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LibriVox is a successful experiment in how to build an open community-driven, non-software project (based on ideals and methods of the free software and open source movements) . TextoSolvo is a new weblog to talk about how we got there and why we seem to have been successful so far.

In a little over a year, the LibriVox community has recorded several thousand of hours of public domain literature, with voices of a thousand or-so volunteers world-wide. Our site is translated into eight (soon to be nine) languages, and we have audio in twenty-one different languages . We have an ambitious target to record all books in the public domain. And while we’re only about one one hundredth of the way through the Gutenberg catalog, well we’ll keep trucking.

While the project itself is wonderful (that is, a public domain audio library), there is a whole mass of administration, software development, and management that allows the LibriVox to function. This back-story is largely unseen by the public, and even by the volunteers in the project, but it is a huge undertaking: the management of these thousands of audio files is something of an administrative nightmare, but we have built a project that handles this mass of digital information very well. All on a budget of $0 (thanks in large part to free audio hosting/bandwidth at the Internet Archive and ibiblio.org)

The infrastructure has been built by about twenty people, who know each other only through the LibriVox project, and contributed their time and expertise (coding, project management, system development, web and UI design, information science, diplomacy, etc etc) simply because they wanted to. To me that is the really fascinating thing: how did the LibriVox platform get built, and built so well? How can we keep it going into the future?

And can we help others do something similar?

TextoSolvo* (inspiration for the name is discussed below) is meant to be a platform to discuss:

  • How-To Build an Open Project (for non software-geeks), The LibriVox Experience.
  • Thoughts on the Open Movement (creative commons, free software, open source, civic access) and why it is important for the world
  • A brief history of LibriVox

I am planning over the next year or so to post weekly here (some will be recycled from stuff I have written elsewhere). The long-term goal is to build a book’s worth of (I hope) useful information, not just for LibriVox aficionados, but for anyone interested in the open movement, and building open, community-based projects. I don’t have any specific plans for the “final” product, but I’d like to see it in print somehow, and of course an audio version will be made available!

Again I would like to encourage anyone from LibriVox (or anywhere for that matter) to contribute through comments, and I’ll probably be asking for some longer contributions too, if anyone is interested.

*TextoSolvo, from the “About Page”:


TextoSolvo is a bit of morphed Latin. The definitions (from William Whittaker’s Words program), are:

text.o (V) weave; plait (together); construct with elaborate care.
text.o (N) woven fabric, cloth; framework, web; atomic structure; ratio atoms/void.
solv.o (V) loosen, release, unbind, untie, free; open; set sail; scatter; pay off/back.

I like texto*solvo because it works in two ways, the idea of buidling and weaving together (texto) in a loose and free network (solvo). This is what LibriVox looks like to me: a tightly-woven community, building something elaborate and important, in a loose, free network, scattered all over the world. I haven’t gotten my head around that last bit of the texto definition: “ratio atoms/void”; but I think there is something important there too.

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Musings on open collaborative projects, (mostly non-software) with a focus on idealism and not money-making. The starting point is the LibriVox.org project. Mostly written by Hugh McGuire, but guest writers may join in as well. [more ...]

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