07 May 2011

Righting Wrongs by Re-writing Ebooks

One key property of printed books is that it is very hard to modify them. Digital books, by contrast, are trivially easy to re-write - provided they are released under a licence that permits that.

One early enlightened example of a book that does allow such modification is Free as in Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman that came out around the same time as Rebel Code.

Although Free as in Freedom was based on extensive interviews with him, Stallman was not entirely happy with certain aspects of it; he has therefore taken advantage of the GNU Free Documentation Licence it was published under in order to offer his own gloss on the text and facts [.pdf]:

I have aimed to make this edition combine the advantages of my knowledge and Williams’ interviews and outside viewpoint. The reader can judge to what extent I have achieved this.

I read the published text of the English edition for the first time in 2009 when I was asked to assist in making a French translation of Free as in Freedom. It called for more than small changes. Many facts needed correction, but deeper changes were also needed.


The first edition overdramatized many events by projecting spurious emotions into them.

However, as Stallman explains, making changes was a non-trivial task:

For all these reasons, many statements in the original edition were mistaken or incoherent. It was necessary to correct them, but not straightforward to do so with integrity short of a total rewrite, which was undesirable for other reasons. Using explicit notes for the corrections was suggested, but in most chapters the amount of change made explicit notes prohibitive. Some errors were too pervasive or too ingrained to be corrected by notes. Inline or footnotes for the rest would have overwhelmed the text in some places and made the text hard to read; footnotes would have been skipped by readers tired of looking down for them. I have therefore made corrections directly in the text.

This ability for subjects of books to offer comments on and corrections to the text is a fascinating new development made possible by digital books and liberal licences. It raises all sorts of questions of how best to offer this extra layer of information and comment, and what the ethical - and legal - issues are in terms of making sure that the reader knows who is claiming what.

With Free as in Freedom 2.0, Stallman is once again a blazing a new trail; it will be interesting to see who follows him, and how.

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Carla Schroder said...

"With Free as in Freedom 2.0, Stallman is once again a blazing a new trail; it will be interesting to see who follows him, and how."

Any interview subject who doesn't like how they are portrayed, and gets to rewrite the original publication? In Sam William's introduction to the second edition he talks mostly about changes in tech and in the world since the first edition, and doesn't talk to much about errors or "spurious emotions". He does mention RMS objecting to saying he said "fucking" because "I have never spoken that way". Not that he doesn't use profanity, but that he has a thing against adverbs. Yeah, whatever. RMS' introduction is all about setting the record straight. This should be an interesting read.

Glyn Moody said...

@Carla: Stallman is obviously a very particular case - incredibly intelligent, highly argumentative, and with very strong opinions. Sounds like a perfect combination for this kind of thing...

Anonymous said...

Interesting: back in the days of netnews, one of the recurring points was the concept of a "right to reply", something which books didn't offer, and newspapers offered mainly in the breach (;-))

Now we see it reapper, with the advent of free documnetation licensing. Cool!


Glyn Moody said...

@dave: yes, indeed.

Carla Schroder said...

Glyn, RMS is undeniably brilliant, but he is not a Vulcan with perfect recall; he is human, with a human ego and human flaws. Like relying on 7-year old memories of events and conversations. Like having different perceptions of himself than other people have. Like having the chutzpah to rewrite someone else's book, when he is the subject of it. It is not uncommon for a 2nd edition to be written by someone other than the original author. It is very unusual for an interview/biography subject to do their own rewrite, for obvious reasons.

Imagine if Donald Trump or Orly Taitz did something like this-- me, I'd die laughing. Of course RMS is admirable, where Trump and Taitz are not. But it's hard to not see it as self-serving. Of course when I actually read it I may have a different opinion.

Glyn Moody said...

@Carla:I agree: I think these revenge re-writes could be dire - but very entertaining as a result (not to mention the re-re-writes....)