Some friends of mine were over for dinner the other day, and one of them (Ravi Vakil) was asking me about possible licenses for an algebraic geometry book he was thinking of writing. He’d like it to be freely available, so (for example) students could download it, though he doesn’t actually want to put it in the public domain. (Which was my first recommendation, under the influence of this article by Karl Fogel.)

For software, of course, I’d have lots of recommendations: the GPL is one obvious possibility, but hardly the only one. For books, though, it’s not so clear; the FSF has something called the GFDL, but I don’t particularly like it. (I wouldn’t necessarily call it a free license at all; it certainly doesn’t allow others nearly the range of possibilities as the GPL does, though admittedly it’s not clear whether or not Ravi wants to allow other users those possibilities, either.) One source of possible licenses that I found was Creative Commons; are there other good sources out there?

As Ravi commented, he’d like to have the book already be freely available when he’s shopping it around to publishers, to present them with a fait accompli. Which makes me wonder: are there reputable scholarly publishers out there that allow their authors to make the books in question freely available in electronic editions? In my experience, scholarly publishers are in the dark ages when it comes to these matters: they still try (and succeed) to wrest the copyright of works they publish from the works’ authors. Which is ridiculous.

How hard would it be to start a mathematical press, for the twin purposes of giving rights to authors and of encouraging as wide a distribution as possible? (Which are, of course, conflicting goals.) If I could find some friends to help, I could imagine trying such a thing in a couple of years. Of course, there may already be enough people out there trying to do the same thing that it would be more effective to join onto an existing effort.

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