Information wants to be valuable
| Tim O'Reilly|
President, O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
doesn't want to be free. Information wants to be valuable." I first heard
this gem from Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language. Like many
other open-source software authors, from Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, to
Tim Berners-Lee and his spiritual descendants at the Apache web server project,
Larry discovered that one way to make his information (i.e., his software) more
valuable was to make it free. Larry was thus able to increase its utility not
only for himself (because others who took it up made changes and enhancements
that he could use), but for everyone else who uses it, because as software becomes
more ubiquitous it can be taken for granted as a foundation for further work.
The Internet (based on freely available software including TCP/IP, BIND, Apache,
Sendmail and so on) demonstrates clearly just how much value can be created by
the distribution of freely available software.
I am neither a practising scientist nor a publisher of scientific journals,
but as a book and web publisher who works on a regular basis to document widely
available 'infrastructure' software (both free and commercial), I am daily confronted
with decisions akin to those reflected in the debate now being carried in these
pages. Because I publish books about free software, the people best qualified
to write about it are often the authors of the software. Like scientists, those
authors often have as their ideal the widest possible dissemination of their software
and information about how to use it, rather than the greatest economic gain. They
would like to see the documentation they write distributed freely along with the
At other times, though, software authors see documentation
as an afterthought. They would rather not deal with it, and hope that someone
else will. In those cases, the question of compensation often comes into play.
Will a third party who is motivated chiefly by money earn enough from this book
to justify the time writing it?
In helping authors to navigate this discussion, I try to bring them back to their goal. Is it maximum dissemination of information or is it earning enough to justify the work? I should note that the jury is still out on whether making the text of a book freely available helps or hurts sales of a print book. There is evidence on both sides.
cases, such as Eric Raymond's book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, free distribution
of the content created the 'buzz' that allowed us to publish the same material
successfully in print. In other cases, such as our initial publication of the
Linux Network Administrator's Guide, sales were reduced because other companies
republished some or all of the book at lower cost, which they could do because
they had no development costs or royalties. However, over time this problem abated,
because the fact that those publishers were not adding value was recognized by
the target audience, and eventually marginalized their products.
see many parallels between the work of free software authors and the work of scientists.
In most cases, both are more interested in making sure their work is disseminated
than in maximizing their return from it. In most cases, the target reader is a
peer of the author. Publishing is designed to enhance reputation as well as to
spread the word. Publishers must be careful to keep prices fair, lest they be
seen as taking advantage of the goodwill of their authors, gouging the very customers
who also produce their content.
Many people with their own web pages end up writing for better-established
websites; those sites are further aggregated for readers by search engines, directories
and other portals such as Google,
Yahoo! or AOL. In fact, web
publishers now employ full-time workers to ensure that their pages are listed
on these gateway sites, much as publishers of printed books employ sales people.
A large proportion of Internet advertising has come from websites trying to get
better visibility for their product.
However, the web does bring another wrinkle: the ability of groups to self-aggregate. The core functions of publishing, from content filtering to audience aggregation, can be performed by a group of interested users. This is particularly true when there is already a well-defined target community. This can be a disruptive force in the publishing marketplace. So, for example, sites such as Cnet and ZDnet spent tens of millions of dollars building and promoting portals for technical information on the web, while two college students built a site called Slashdot ("News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.") into a similarly powerful market presence simply by inviting their readers to submit, organize and comment on their own content.
Interestingly enough, though, as Slashdot has grown in popularity
and evolved into a real business, it has needed to add more editorial staff to
filter the submissions of a growing marketplace of readers who now recognize that
exposure via Slashdot is a powerful marketing tool. In short, even a community-centric
effort ends up recreating some of the fundamental dynamics of publisher as middleman
What this evolution illustrates is that publishers
will not go away, but that they cannot be complacent. Publishers must serve the
values of both authors and readers. If they try to enforce an artificial scarcity,
charge prices that are too high or otherwise violate the norms of their target
community, they will encourage that community to self-organize, or new competitors
will emerge who are better attuned to the values of the community.