Use the Creative Commons License for Free Books

One important thing to consider if you are planning on writing a free book is the license for the work. Traditional software licenses have some clauses that are not relevant to books or electronic media. Lessig’s Creative Commons makes sense because he wrote it with books in mind. So where a license like Apache or GPL talks about “binaries” and “source”, Creative Commons talks about “works” being “published”. Even though the books I write have DocBook source code which is compiled into binary output, the Creative Commons talks about “Work”.

Here’s the definition of “Work”, which I find amusing because it mentions “circus performers”. I often wonder if one of the Creative Commons folks put “circus performer” in the definition of Work on a dare:

“”Work” means the literary and/or artistic work offered under the terms of this License including without limitation any production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain, whatever may be the mode or form of its expression including digital form, such as a book, pamphlet and other writing; … blah blah blah …; or a work performed by a variety or circus performer to the extent it is not otherwise considered a literary or artistic work.

I write books under:

Which is very simply explained on the Creative Commons web site as:

“This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.”

Most of the books I write have some sort of commercial interest associated with them. For example, I want to make money as a consultant or as a trainer. Or, the sponsoring company wants to sell a product or training. Although I know the next part of this sentence will appear invisible to Free Software Foundation people, I’ve found it necessary to have a protective No Derivatives clause for technical document as I’ve already had instances where content I’ve written has magically appeared in someone else’s (lucrative) training material.

If you’ve written a technical book, you are also very familiar with the idea that there is no control. Someone is going to take your content, muck around with it, provided it as a free download on any one of a hundred sites designed to pirate books. Any selection of a license is really just aimed at people who are going to follow the rules.


Here are the clauses I choose, and why…

Attribution – Just makes sense. Not controversial with anyone, right?

No Derivatives – I’m a bit old-fashioned, I feel like a book is a complete work. And, I don’t want people picking and choosing parts of the book to publish. I’m also not particularly keen about people jumping up and creating a derivative work that rides off of a work I’ve helped create.

Non-commercial – This has a few meanings in the context of a technical
book. It means that no one but the originating author (or sponsor) can sell the book as a part
of a commercial offering. Someone else could sell the book at a
reasonable cost like printing plus materials plus labor costs, but most people don’t want someone to take their book and start selling it in some expensive package deal at least some discussion about licensing.

The other part of Non-commercial is that someone can’t purchase ten
copies of your book and then use it as a basis for a training class.
This is tough to enforce, and I’m not sure you could realistically enforce this.

If you are more into the GPL
side of life, you could drop the No Deriv / Non-commercial, and go
with a Share Alike clause.


If you are thinking about starting a free book, think about the different clauses that are appropriate to your situation and choose wisely. Some of the clauses I listed above are far too restrictive for most open source work, but, if you are starting to write a book, you’ll want to think about these issues.