Recently, someone did the unthinkable: they published their own version of Dive Into Python and got it listed on This apparently caused a small firestorm within Apress, the exact details of which I am not privy to, but which (I am told) became a somewhat larger firestorm after the Apress executives realized they had no legal recourse, and asked my opinion on the matter. You see, the book is published under the GNU Free Documentation License, which explicitly gives anyone and everyone the right to publish it themselves. (I was about to write “gives third parties the right,” until I realized that there are no third parties because there are no second parties. That’s kind of the point.)

This didn’t use to matter, because publishing on paper used to require a serious up-front investment in, well, paper. “Freedom of the press” was reserved for those with an actual press, and distribution costs were decidedly non-trivial. Publishing a book commercially just wasn’t practical for anyone but, well, a book publisher. That’s no longer the case. Copies can be purchased online, printed on demand, and drop-shipped to the customer — up-front investment be damned. And that’s for printed books; e-books are even easier.

Software had this problem first, by virtue of its non-corporeality. How many people are selling Free Software on eBay? We deride these sellers as “scammers,” but in truth the only time they run afoul of the law is when they attempt to rebrand your software without acknowledgement, or when they fail to abide by some other intentionally inside-out clause of the license that you chose in the first place (e.g. selling GPL’d binaries without offering source code).

Still, there’s a qualitative difference between letting people download your own work from your own site, and watching other people try to profit from it. But it is precisely this difference that strikes at the heart of the Free Software/Free Culture ethos. Part of choosing a Free license for your own work is accepting that people may use it in ways you disapprove of. There are no “field of use” restrictions, and there are no “commercial use” restrictions either. In fact, those are two of the fundamental tenets of the “Free” in Free Software. If “others profiting from my work” is something you seek to avoid, then Free Software is not for you. Opt for a Creative Commons “Non-Commercial” license, or a “personal use only” freeware license, or a traditional End User License Agreement. Free Software doesn’t have “end users.” That’s kind of the point.

The aforementioned Apress executive told me that he did not understand why I would be willing to work with a publisher but then be happy about their competition. This is what I told him:

I enjoy working with publishers because it makes me a better writer. But I don’t write for money; I write for love (or passion, or whatever you want to call it). I choose open content licenses because this is the way I want the world to work, and the only way to change the world is to change yourself first.

I don’t know where that leaves you as a business. But you’ve made a good amount of money on the original “Dive Into Python,” despite the fact that it’s been available for free online for 8 years. A German translation of Dive Into Python 3 is being published this quarter by Springer/Germany [a division of Apress' parent company] almost simultaneously with the English edition — much sooner-to-market than it would have been under a closed development process. (And an Italian translation was just released yesterday. You should snap that one up too before someone else does!) So maybe the problems you perceive are really opportunities in disguise.

So I am grateful for this anonymous soul who woke up one day and said to herself, “You know what I should do today? I should try to sell copies of that Free book that Pilgrim wrote.” Grateful, because it afforded me the opportunity to remind myself why I chose a Free license in the first place. My Zen teacher once told me that, when people try to do you harm, you should thank them for giving you the opportunity to forgive them. In this case it’s even simpler, because there’s nothing to forgive, just explain. She’s redistributing the work that I explicitly made redistributable. She’s kind of the point.


Sixty five comments here (latest comments)

  1. The aforementioned Apress executive told me that he did not understand why I would be willing to work with a publisher but then be happy about their competition.

    I think the bigger question is why they agreed to publish the book when the terms intentionally allow this. Or perhaps I should thank them for being so forward thinking.

    — jldugger #

  2. First of all, thankyou for writing this book and making it available online. It is literally the first thing I recommend to people that want to learn about Python!

    I just wanted to say the Apress book has a weird mix of statements (see link below for screenshot), one of which requires your written consent to reproduce (which I take it from this post you will never try to seek damages for a violation :-)).

    — timf #

  3. Thanks for the video bits.

    I read the pieces as you posted them, and the overall chapter of HTML5 now that you’ve posted it. Very helpful to me, as well as a friend I forwarded them to. Thanks.

    — Chris Pepper #

  4. Spot on! If you’re going to *give* something to somebody, you can’t expect them to act in ways that you’ve not asked them to. And, as you mentioned, you specifically allowed them to redistribute it even for profit.

    — Jeremy Nicoll #

  5. Excellent. I fear too many people don’t really get the full picture as regards free software. I suspect I’ll be linking to this post regularly.

    — Peter Keane #

  6. Great post.
    It’s true that when you giving (real thing) to someone you can’t force her to do what you think is appropriate. What’s even more brilliant is the GNU license with give the full rights to the ‘taker’.

    — Ido Green #

  7. Could you tell us who the second lot of publishers are? I’d like to know so I can choose not to give them my money.
    They may be legally in the clear. I don’t care. Their actions smell of dishonesty to me. (Unless Mark is still getting royalties out of it.)

    — Down and Out of Sài Gòn #

  8. As always, many thanks for your varied contributions during the years.
    You don’t link the book’s “independent” edition, and I cannot find it on . Has it been removed, or was it actually published somewhere else? I cannot find it on either.

    — Nicola Larosa #

  9. Excellent post and thanks for the book.

    — Venkatesh Sellappa #

  10. @timf: could the first paragraph not be construed as the “written consent” mentioned in the second?

    — Jon #

  11. Mark, while I wouldn’t do the same myself, I thoroughly admire you for (a) having principles, and (b) sticking to them.

    — Ian Betteridge #

  12. It’s great people who make this world great. Hats off for you sir!

    — chanux #

  13. Mark,
    Thank you for writing Dive into Python, and reacting to the situation in such a principled and admirable manner.

    This is a question I ask myself all the time. While I am also okay if someone chooses to profit with my trivial open source contributions, I don’t think I would be okay with it if I was trying to profit from it in the first place.

    Can I ask you how you would react to the exact same situation if you used to sell the e-book under the same license, and was a major source of income for you? If someone sold it at cheaper or at no cost, and marketed it better, you would lose customers and funds. A lot of my friends who want to sell their software and give the customers the right to modify it are always concerned about people exploiting the freedom free software gives them.

    — Anirudh #

  14. I don’t actually see this FDL’d book for sale, but I would suppose that any conventional publisher would still be able to outcompete any POD outfit on price. Which means that if you want to publish an FDL’d book and make a serious buck off of it you need to make *improvements*. And if they’re worthwhile improvements — if you’re really competing on quality, then you deserve every sale you get. :)

    — Andrew Rodland #

  15. Hello Mark,

    thanks for the wonderful book and even more thanks for sticking to this principle. Admirable and exceptional !

    — EGW #

  16. @Anirudh,
    “A lot of my friends who want to sell their software and give the customers the right to modify it are always concerned about people exploiting the freedom free software gives them.”
    Creative Commons Non Commercial?
    Also, in this case, note the EIGHT years where Apress made money as mentioned. And then he adds the translation angle.
    Wait till Apress realise the full potential of the Web – they can make a portal for Python-based development and support services like a freelancer exchange.
    This Internet thing is the antidote to the “industrial model” that Apress is not able to see outside of. As Mark said, there’s no “third party” because there’s no second party.
    Similarly, for business, if you replace development company by small online software shop / freelancer / consultant, the only certification your customer needs is Apress’s guarantee that the developer is genuine. This can be done.
    Instead of investing in industrial cost items like presses and machinery, apress must invest in online cost items and knowledge additions. The vast amount of money they have can fund a whole lot of creative enterprise with direct contact between customer and developer through an Apress Exchange, globally avaliable.
    *That* is what Mark means by the “So maybe the problems you perceive are really opportunities in disguise.”
    Apress execs need to read about Free Software properly, all over again.
    “How to make money on free content” is a good topic to focus on.
    Add-on services is where the money and creativity is. It is cruel to the capitalist because he now has to compete with creative people and ingenious economic hackers because the rules are totally new. If you’ve been a closed-mind capitalist, it’s now your turn to be clueless and out of control. If not, you can learn to be creative in business models and thus profitable, again.

    — CaptainNotObvious #

  17. Mark writing about his honorable choice, but not linking to “her” book is interesting in itself. Thank you for Dive Into Python!

    — Raphael Balimann #

  18. So i have to ask, what’s the link to this freely licensed ‘pirate’ book?
    I tried to look it up on amazon but couldn’t find it. Did apress find a way to get it taken down after all?

    — rabble #

  19. Well, that’s the unfortunate side of this story. Before involving me (and, one would hope, before realizing they had no legal right to do so), Apress “asked” Amazon to de-list the mystery publisher’s edition, and the publisher “complied.” I do not know the exact details of how this transpired, so take the scare quotes however you wish.

    — Mark #

  20. Thank you. Your words are ones to live by. Indeed, I’ve made a few choice snippets part of my fortune file.


    — Mark #

  21. How do you get a Zen teacher?

    — Donny #

  22. Update: apparently the Amazon page still exists, but the book is no longer available for purchase. This is the edition in question:

    — Mark #

  23. This is wonderful to see a part of the GPL in action in a way that not many people take advantage of. Normally, we see original authors and vendors selling copies of their GPL’d material, and enthusiasts will rebundle it for free. Here someone is using their right to resell the material, although I’d guess they won’t make that much unless they offer something unique.

    Some people have suggested that this is dishonest, but I think those individuals have missed your point, and further miss the point of the GPL. Free as in freedom.

    — Alec #

  24. The 3rd edition of the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role playing game was published under the “Open Game License” which allows you to re-use most of the content in your own OGL products (“most” means all rules and game mechanics, but not the names of designated monsters and characters). Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the publishers of D&D made the core books and a couple of others OGL but not the rest of their content… while 3rd party publishers (and there was quite a number of them, some publishing printed books and some digital) had to make all their content under the OGL. The scheme was a success and a ton of expansions to the game were published.

    Most of the books published as OGL, or at least the better known ones, were distributed commercially (for anywhere in the $5 to $30 range). Either out of ignorance and fear, or out of “respect” for a small industry, the content in this books was never copied and distributed freely around, which the license would have permited. Even when WotC published the “Unearthed Arcana” expansion as 100% OGL material (list price $34.95) and people talked about doing OCR, and posting the book online some suggested waiting a year to avoid harming WotC (don’t know if they did, but it took a while until I saw that content made freely available). Even then, this was the biggest publisher, WotC… there weren’t any plans to OCR and distribute books from small 3rd party publishers.

    Publishers were allowed to take each other’s materials but they rarely did, mostly they reprinted some monster or rule they liked. It was a while until one of the biggest 3rd party publishers thought of taking advantage of the OGL and selling a pocket version of the D&D Player’s Handbook (the most important book of all in the game, published by WotC and 90% under the OGL). And it wasn’t until WotC came up with the all new and very different 4th Edition of D&D (discontinuing the 3rd) that the largest 3rd party publisher decided to “branch” D&D 3rd Edition into a new game called “Pathfinder” which has just been released (it has a new name but it’s just a patched version of D&D 3rd edition).

    And my point is: The “open content” model worked just fine for both WotC and 3rd party publishers… yet I have a feeling it did because almost nobody was taking advantage of the OGL to its full extent. It was a completely different game from OSS where free distribution of everything that can be freely distributed is expected and done. A sistematic effort to copy quickly and centralized distribution of OGLd content would have probably pissed of publishers, forced them to lower their prices and likely make some close their doors (mostly the ones publishing in commercial PDFs I guess… but all this accompanied with a decent print-by-demand company would have made a bigger hole in the industry).

    In your case it seems to be the same. You have to convince APress of not sweating over alternate legal editions of your book… but in this case the alternate edition took quite a while to arrive and was low profile. A more aggressive competitor (one going to the press as soon as possible, doing translations before APress does, etc.) would have made it a lot harder for you to argue your point to APress.

    — Eric Londaits #

  25. While I understand your point of view Mark, I have to say I’m a disappointed owner of the SoHo books addition. I realized what happened as soon as I started to read it. I got my copy from the “New” section of the Apress book’s listing, but not direct from Amazon.

    The build quality is NOT good, and the typesetting is the exact same as viewing a printed webpage.

    I understand your view, but I am disappointed that you did not receive any royalties for the copy I hold in my hand now. I also do not feel like I got what I was expecting as far as the quality.

    — Luciano Moretti #

  26. @Donny: When you’re ready, the universe will send him to you.

    (I’m only half kidding)

    — Rachel Blum #

  27. But – again – it’s not “others profiting from your work” that bothers me (I couldn’t be happier). It’s “others blocking access to your work” that bothers me. People making money by *preventing* my work from being shared.

    — Stephen Downes #

  28. Mark, would you be willing to elaborate on the comment your Zen teacher made?

    — Bill Smith #

  29. @timf: the first paragraph of the copyright statement expressly gives you “prior written permission” to copy the the work — but only under the GNU FDL. The two paragraphs work in conjunction. Basically, paragraph 2 means “we claim copyright in this work and reserve all rights unless expressly stated otherwise in writing.” Paragraph 1 means: “despite our copyright, we give you the right to copy/distribute/modify (but only if you comply with the terms and conditions of the GNU FDL).”

    — afiske #

  30. Looked over the edition in question at:

    Did you notice the ‘minor’ detail of the publisher in question?
    Publisher: CreateSpace “CreateSpace is a DBA of On-Demand Publishing LLC, a subsidiary of Inc.”

    Apparently this proves the ‘pecking order’ at amazon is still in sync if they backed-off selling it directly.

    — Daniel #

  31. My hats to you Mark. Thanks for raising the bar!

    — elzurk #

  32. @Mark. Interesting situation – your acceptance of this side effect of the Free License is quite impressive. An interesting thought which occurs to me – code that I write for my job is used commercially by another person to make money, with no further compensation to myself; by contract. While you don’t have a working relationship with the reseller in question, I find it interesting how this situation seems to bring the creation of copyrighted works more in line with production of goods under commercial employment, RE: length of time the producer is compensated.

    @Donny: you may get lucky and the universe might send one to you; I recommend looking for one. Find a temple or a website and talk to people (either Zen or Ch’an, Japanese/Chinese respectively). Find who they recommend. Read books. Teachers don’t have to be physically present to teach. Notice the Zen in everyone and everything, and suddenly everything around you is a Zen teacher.

    — river-wind #

  33. This is wonderful. As an author of a free book (in my case it isn’t GPL it is a CC-NoDeriv-BY-NonCommercial), I can tell you that the audience size for freedom is orders of magnitude beyond the audience for a traditional, dead-tree book. So much so that I’m never going to write another non-free book again. Go freedom!

    — Tim O'Brien #

  34. While @river-wind is technically correct, in my case it was simply a matter of driving to a Zen center in Chapel Hill and meditating. On further reflection, it might not have been the teacher there; it might have been a guest speaker. Not that it matters much. I haven’t been there in quite some time; the distance and the particular hours they were open butted up against prime family time in the evenings.

    — Mark #

  35. “This didn’t used to matter”

    “This didn’t use to matter” is the correct form.

    — grammarpolice #

  36. Hooray for collective editing!

    — Mark #

  37. Just to throw a cat amongst the pigeons…. everyone likes ot get something for free, hence the almost universal approval of the “free is good” crowd, but… it’s all very well for you, who are (evidently) well-off enough to give away your labour for free, but there are plenty of people who rely on selling their labour in order to buy their daily bread. Giving the fruits of your labour away for free may appear very charitable, but you’re not helping those worse off than you. “Free labour” is a luxury of the well-off, and like most luxuries, it is ultimately at the expense of those less well-off.

    — WhoReallyCares #

  38. You are correct that I am well-off, and that it is easier to give your work away when you don’t need the money to survive. (I recently made a similar point in another discussion.) You are wrong about all the other stuff.

    — Mark #

  39. I am sorry if that came across as a personal attack – it wan’t meant to be. I was just trying to make the general point that anyone can only give their labour away for free if they are already secure. Those who aren’t, cannot. And – agian without wishing to be perosnal – why should someone buy “my” labour if they can get “yours” for free?

    — WhoReallyCares #

  40. I do find it amazing that Amazon transferred the APress edition’s reviews to the re-printer’s book page. That seems very confusing to potential readers–and a poor decision on their part.

    Longstanding social conventions and reader backlash do make this sort of reprinting pretty much harmless. I wouldn’t call reprinting and undercutting on price a particularly productive or noble action, though. An identical, poorly typeset version of the book doesn’t seem to benefit anybody.

    Perhaps this is a teachable moment about the broader implications of Free works, but the actions of the translators seem far more valuable and relevant to an argument for Free works.

    Thanks for sharing the story and your reaction–a very interesting read.

    — ryota #

  41. Right on Mark!

    [if a tree falls in a forest, and is made into books people read...]

    — Danny #

  42. > why should someone buy “my” labour if they can get “yours” for free?
    If yours is creating more value, they will. If not, work on something else. Instead of the half-empty view that you’ve been commoditized, consider the half-full view that your resources are now freed to create something more valuable.

    — Ian Kallen #

  43. Related: thoughts from the Apress editor who signed the book in the first place.

    — Mark #

  44. @WhoReallyCares: I didn’t take it as a personal attack. You’re just wrong. You count the “value” that is lost by people who would have made money selling rival goods, but can’t now because they can’t compete with free. But you don’t count the value that is created by people who build upon the freely given goods. (In this case, people who learned Python from my book and went on to use that knowledge to build other things.)

    In other words, you only look at the first-order effects. It’s the same mistake a lot of people make when they accuse open source developers of “dumping” and ruining the market for competing software. That’s true, in a very narrow sense, but it ignores all the other people who took that software and used it to create something else of value.

    — Mark #

  45. WhoReallyCares:
    “Giving the fruits of your labour away for free may appear very charitable, but you’re not helping those worse off than you.”

    Actually, this situation rebuts your statement totally. In giving away the rights to his book, Mark directly helped others less well of by:

    1. Creating the potential for this completely unrelated person, and anyone else who wants to go to the bother of typesetting the manuscript, to publish a book and make some money off of sales.

    2. Created a resource for programmers to use for their own gain by improving their skills, enabling them to create programs from which they might profit from directly, and/or expanding their job prospects.

    Either way, Mark’s generosity has served any number of people who are less well off (as well as those who are equally or better off – free is an equal opportunity assist). And his example may well encourage others to do the same, thus perpetuating the stream of valuable, freely available resources.

    — Anonymous #

  46. A good example of why you should never publish a book using the GNU Free Documentation License.
    Give it away to your hearts content but reserve all rights.

    — Don #

  47. Mark, why didn’t you choose to place the work in the public domain then? Why deal with the encumbrances of any license, and inflict them on remixers?

    — Vincent Gable #

  48. “My Zen teacher once told me that, when people try to do you harm, you should thank them for giving you the opportunity to forgive them.”

    Surely the appropriate response to this is to slap the teacher’s face?

    — gwenhwyfaer #

  49. Thanks Mark. I’m not a huge believer in free software, and one of the biggest issues I have with the whole movement is when people who claim to support free software are upset that someone (usually a big company like Adobe or Microsoft) takes their free product and decides to make money with it. You’re right, if you give it away, you should be perfectly willing to let anyone use it for any reason. Otherwise you shouldn’t give it away.

    And if APress was willing to publish a book with this license in the first place, they must have realized this could happen and thought (correctly) that they could make money anyway.

    — Michael Moncur #

  50. I got the book..thanks….

    — SD #

  51. I’m not so sure that the “All rights reserved” clause is such a good idea: See the discussion regarding GPL on debian legal:
    @Tim O’Brien: I wouldn’t call CC-NoDeriv-BY-NonCommercial Free at all. Maybe you give it away for free (gratis) but you remove all the essential freedoms from your recipients. We all thank Mark for having understood Free Software principles so deeply!

    — Michael Kesper #

  52. I’m confused as to why this caused a firestorm at Apress. This is not the first time they’ve had issues surrounding a text published under a free license.

    You’d think they’d have figured it out by now.

    — Johnsterx #

  53. First, I want to say thanks for a great book, have really enjoyed it.

    Second, I have to say I really admire the way you are explaining FOSS to the world. Although technically not FOSS, but Free and Open Publishing in this case. You are truly a pioneer and visionary in the world of Publishing and FOSS in general. Thank you a million times over.

    — Utahcon #

  54. While somebody else can take the content of your book and republish, they can’t use branded items that you or Apress own without your permission such as the book title, the Apress name (trademark), branded images, etc. If this person/organization on Amazon is using similar colors, images, or names to try and deceive people into buying their product instead of yours, then I suspect that Apress could easily shut them down. In fact, with brands you must enforce them or you will lose your rights to them.

    I was working at Red Hat when the CentOS issue was being hotly debated. In the end Red Hat did the right thing and simply continued to enforce their brands. CentOS cannot use the Red Hat name, images, colors, etc. The Red Hat brand and what that brand represents is really what makes Red Hat their money. I suspect the same is (and will continue to be) true with open books like yours.

    I consider Dive Into Python one of the best python resources out there and responsible for a non-trivial amount of python’s success. Keep up the good work.

    — Joel Martin #

  55. As the edition in question was a verbatim copy (as defined by the GFDL), using the same title is permitted. There didn’t appear to be any sort of deception on the part of the publisher; the cover is their own style, and it doesn’t bear any resemblance to Apress’ branding. (As another commenter mentioned, Amazon transferred the comments from the other book editions, which may have caused some confusion but wasn’t actually the publisher’s fault.)

    — Mark #

  56. For what it’s worth, Amazon does that for many many cases like this, where there are two editions that are essentially identical. For example, look at any of the complete Sherlock Holmes collections and you’ll find comments referring to totally different complete Sherlock Holmes collections. It’s pretty irritating.

    — Garrett #

  57. (I’m here because of

    So, Mark, if I understand correctly, the kind of copyright you have on this particular work lets others print up their own copies and sell them without you ever seeing a dime, or use them to papertrain the puppy or to get the fireplace going, or give them away or even just read it themselves, but does that automatically give them license to use your name (and any associated cachet with regard to marketing the book) as well?

    — unitron #

  58. @unitron: A verbatim copy can retain Mark’s name, as I understand section 2.

    A modified copy, however, must remove endorsements of the author and previous publisher, see section 4.

    More over, APress isn’t the publisher of which I presume the amazon publisher used.

    — lazni #

  59. GNU “free” and CC “free” or re-distributable, or whatever label you want to put on it, is pure BS. It is a giant con, just like the 501c3 organizations are a ruthless con. There are so many similar cons. The list is painfully, and woefully long. Point is: We have ALL been conned. We think we are smart. We think we are cool. We believe we have our own views that we created and developed. So, we think we are hip, but we are just dumbed down dopes who have been duped. We’ve been duped by an elite who have carefully planned for all this for decades. What is all this? It is called socialism, like the kind in WWII Germany or the Soviet Union (only with more smiles and toy gadgets). Take your pick; they’re just two sides of the same twisted coin.

    You can get as ‘zen’-ed and ‘yoga’-ed out as you want, but it won’t stop the pain. What pain? The pain of knowing when you have been played… of knowing that you are incrementally and willingly losing ALL your rights. To win in this game you have to go back to the original rules—the ones that built and created all the great stuff in the first place… ‘What are those rules?’ – you may ask. They are simply: You create it, you own it. You are responsible for it. And you can profit from it, or not. The choice is NOT made by some greedy jerk, it is your choice… Anything else is just part of the elaborate con. And no amount of zazen, head balances, or chai will make the pain of the con go away—only exercising your rights will… ALL your rights.

    — Christo #

  60. Very funny, Christo. Copyright is the con, and it’s fairly recent.

    — Anonymous #

  61. Thank you for licensing your work with copyleft! While there’s a substantial move toward sharing in the publishing and music worlds, I’m disappointed that non-commercial licenses are so popular. Your book empowers me to benefit from the sharing in a substantive way. With copyleft works, we are all encouraged to be creators. With non-commercial licenses, we are all encouraged to be consumers. Thank you Mr Pilgrim!

    — Kristofer Bergstrom #

  62. There are people out in the wild trying to do the Free thing with music too. Some copyleft, some not.

    Packet In is a net band I write some for doing Free Music with Free Software:

    Some other folks I know doing a good amount of Free Music are:

    all the best,

    — drew Roberts #

  63. @Christo: Seriously, learn what socialism is… Why would the elite help an economic system bent on dissolving the elite?

    @Mark: how (un)fortunate to have this situation. I hope the outcome will favour you.

    — Tjeerd #

  64. The non-apress edition is currently:
    – purchasable
    – list 35, actual 28
    – more expensive than the apress edition (list 40, actual 21.50)

    — Robert Collins #

  65. I just loved your post – it’s so inspiring!

    — Banago #

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