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Last month, Radiohead released its new album, In Rainbows, as a download and asked people to pay whatever they wanted for it. A few weeks later hip-hop artist Saul Williams did more or less the same thing with The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, the album he produced without a record company. Visitors to the Web site (www.niggytardust.com) can pay either $5 or nothing.

Go and have a listen – both albums are good. While you’re online you can read the recipes in James Bridle’s new cookbook without paying for that, either.

Bridle, who lives in London, is a former publishing professional with degrees in computer science and cognitive science and, as he puts it, “severe geek tendencies.” Since September 2006 he has kept the blog booktwo.org, where he writes about the way digital technologies are affecting the traditional printed word. The blog bears the waggish tag line, “The book is dead. Long live the book.”

Nonetheless, Bridle wrote a book, a “real” one called Cooking With Booze that was put out by UK publisher Snowbooks in October. He announced its publication on his blog and assured readers that he’d stuck to his principles and “got all booktwo on it as well.” In other words, he retained his electronic rights to the work and made its entire contents available online for free even as the book sits on store shelves wearing a price tag.

“Putting it online for free means people who wouldn’t have seen it any other way have a better chance of finding it via Google and other search engines,” Bridle explained in an e-mail. “It also means they can try out the recipes, and will hopefully be pretty well-disposed towards it, and end up buying it for themselves or others. In short, it’s great publicity.”

Creative Commons is what makes the book legally sharable. The Massachusetts-based organization offers a variety of liberal copyrights that are based in part on the show-your-work logic of open-source software.

Different types of Creative Commons licenses have different parameters. Bridle chose the Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license for his book, which permits readers to copy and distribute and even “remix” it as long as they do so for noncommercial purposes, acknowledge Bridle as the original author, and “share alike” by distributing any altered versions of the book under a similar license.

“This means I can retain some of my rights but allow others to share and build upon the work, which allows for more interesting uses of it than traditional, restrictive copyright,” Bridle says. He made the online version of the book using open-source software, most of which was free.

Recipes by their nature are amalgamations, with each new user tweaking them to suit his own tastes and then passing them along to friends. Bridle says that making them free, and free to play around with, seemed fitting. Still, wasn’t that hard to explain to the old-media folks who’d spent money publishing the book?

Not in this case, Bridle says; he used to work as an editor at Snowbooks and had initiated discussions there about using such an approach as a promotional tool. He also had the examples of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, both commercially successful novelists who have put whole novels online for free under similar copyrights.

As for Radiohead, Bridle thinks the band’s new album is “very canny. I think an ‘honesty box’ scheme will probably persuade a lot more people to pay rather than download it for free illegally.

“But what’s more interesting is the way they’re cutting out their record company to a large extent: As creative artists, being able to work freely and reach fans directly is pretty much the best situation you can get, and this innovative approach allows them to do so.”

Katie Haegele
Philadelphia Inquirer

*From For Free, by Joni Mitchell