Interview with Leo Babauta of Zen Habits on open source as a model for online publishing

One of the fascinating things about open source, to me, is the way that its ideas about freedom of information have inspired everything from software licensing to music mashups. The possibilities, but also the problems, of applying notions of open source licensing to other areas such as publishing were brought home to me on the day that the Zen Habits blog announced it was going open source.

On 7 January 2008, visitors to Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog were greeted with a simple message: Open Source Blogging: Feel free to steal my content.  It was a cool moment – a high profile blogger taking the chance that by taking a potential hit in Google rankings/ad revenue, the free & open distribution of his work would actually benefit him more. As he said when he announced the move:  “I think, in most cases, the protectionism that is touted by “anti-piracy” campaigns and lawsuits and lobbying actually hurts the artist. Limiting distribution to protect profits isn’t a good thing.”

(This was before high profile musicians like Trent Reznor turned the major label music distribution model on its head by releasing free music on the internet and still selling out of the “special editions” of the same music packaged for fans and sold at premium price. Another example of copyright being dismantled for the benefit of the content creator.)

I was intrigued to find out why Leo had decided to embrace the open source distribution model for his online publishing, and curious why he’d elected to relinquish copyright altogether rather than opting to use the Creative Commons model (I’d note that my blog, is published under Creative Commons). So I interviewed him to find out more.

I’d also note that at the time of this interview, Leo predicted that if he landed a book deal with a traditional publisher, he expected his book would have to be published under copyright in accordance with the traditional publishing model – and he has in fact since landed a publishing deal. Congrats Leo. 🙂

On with the interview!

Can you tell me a little about your background and how you became a writer and blogger? For example I see that you live on Guam – is that where you grew up?

I was born in Portland, Oregon but spent most of my life on Guam, with some time during my childhood spent in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Seattle. I started my writing career as a journalist for the Gannett newspaper on Guam, as a sports writer, an editor, and a news reporter. Later I transitioned to political writing, writing and analyzing laws, speech writing, and freelance writing. I’ve actually been a freelance writer for the last 17 years.

I became a blogger in January 2007, basically as an outlet for some of the positive life changes I’ve been going through, and as a way to share what I’ve learned with others. I’d recently become a vegetarian and a runner, I ran a marathon, become more organized and productive, quit smoking, became an early riser (I get up at 4:30 a.m.), among other changes.

I’m married with six beautiful children, and I live on a house with a gorgeous cliffside view of the ocean. I’m very much into simplicity, and every day my wife and I watch the sunset together.

2. On 7 January you made a post on Zen Habits entitled “Open Source Blogging: Feel Free to Steal my Content”. Was there something specific which prompted this decision? I understand your blog was copyrighted (or Creative Commons) before?

Nothing specific, other than some things I’d been reading recently (including Lessig’s Free Culture, Chomsky and others). I thought about how the publishing world is changing, not only for print but for music and film. I think the old content model is outdated, antiquated and useless. I think the traditional media companies are struggling to hold on to their old business models and revenues, but they’d be wiser to embrace change and be at the head of it.

I thought about these things, and wondered how it would apply to my work. Could I go with a more open model for my blog? Did I really need copyright?

In truth, although the law assumes that anything I publish is automatically copyrighted, I have never published a copyright notice or Creative Commons notice on my blog or in my ebook (Zen To Done). I decided to remain silent on the issue, and people assume that I reserve my rights to the content. After consideration, I decided to lift my silence on the issue and explicitly release my copyright and give my content to the world to use as it wants. Copy it, share it, remix it into something new and beautiful … it’s no longer mine.

3. Many content creators use Creative Commons to share their work but retain some control such as specifying that the content not be used for commercial purposes, or specifying that they receive attribution. Is there a reason you chose to waive all copyright including your right to attribution?

My problem with Creative Commons (and other similar licenses) is that at their fundamental level, they acknowledge copyright laws as valid. They, fundamentally, acknowledge the government’s right to create a monopoly on an idea, to tell us what we can and cannot write, to control our speech in some form. I do not believe in this right, and believe that the government has no business regulating speech or the right of anyone to write anything or say anything or share any information, digitally or otherwise.

I would like attribution, but to insist on that legal right would be going against my principles, and giving the government power that I don’t believe it should have. Once we acknowledge that right, and give the government that power, we open doors to other intrusions on our freedom of speech.

4. Darren at Problogger mentioned quite recently that he had a problem with entire blog posts of his being stolen, and I know from my own experience in print and online publishing in Australia that plagarism, especially online, is rife. Many authors, particularly online, seem to have resigned themselves to the fact, possibly because they feel there’s not much they can do to protect their work online. Do you think that’s a realistic appraisal of the situation?

It’s possible to combat plagiarism, but it takes a lot of time. It bothered me at first, but I gave up, because it really doesn’t matter if someone makes a few dollars off my writing. Does it hurt me? Not really. People have been plagiarising my work for months, and I haven’t seen a drop in readership or traffic or revenues. It’s only a problem if you let it be a problem, in your mind. It’s not a problem for me.

5. You’ve just announced that you’ve left your fulltime job to become a fulltime problogger. How will your decision to relinquish copyright on your blog and ebook change your financial situation? Are you changing your business model or setting up alternative revenue streams?

I personally don’t think that releasing copyright will have any affect on my revenue streams. If anything, it could help. People have been buying more copies of my ebook than ever, since I released copyright. I have more subscribers and traffic than ever. I didn’t do it for that reason, and it may change down the line, but I’m not too worried. If this little experiment fails, I can always do something else. At least I’ve remained true to myself.

But think about this, from a marketing perspective: Zen Habits, in a way, is a brand. The more people who hear about it in a positive way, the better for me. If my brand spreads, it only helps my business. And let’s say that people spread my ebook for free with dozens of friends, and those friends share the ebook with dozens more. Sure, I haven’t made any money … but my writing has been read by thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have read it. My brand has been spread … for free! You can’t get better marketing than that.

Of course, this assumes that my content is so good that people want to share it with others. That’s my hope.

I think that this marketing model can apply to anything – writing, music, movies, art, anything. Let people share your content for free, and if it is good, it will spread. And that means only good things for you as a brand, as an artist, as a businessperson.

7. You seem to believe that copyright is dead (or at least not useful) – so I wonder what you think the future holds for publishers, particularly in the online space. Is there money to be made in content, or will bloggers and other online media need to look at generating revenue in other ways?

Copyright isn’t dead, but I think it is headed that way. Copyright laws are becoming more and more unenforceable, so traditional media corporations are turning to technology, such as DRM, to limit the freedoms of their customers. That’s just plain dumb business. Put frustrating restrictions on your customers? That just makes them mad.

There were never any such restrictions when we had albums and copied them onto tapes, or for books or VHS tapes. Sure, it wasn’t so easy to copy then as now, but the answer is not to make things more frustrating for your customers. The answer is to make things easier. I think an advertising-based model will work better.

I also think the old model of the corporate media choosing just a few talented people (writers, actors, musicians) to become superstars and rich and famous, while blocking out all other talented people, was flawed. It only worked because they controlled the means of distribution. They don’t any more. Now a much larger proportion of the talented community will have access to an audience, have a shot to make it big, as things change.

9. You named checked Lawrence Lessig and Richard Stallman in your blog post, and I have to admit that I find the application of GNU/Open Source principles and licensing [which were invented for computer software] to the written word to be really fascinating. Do you have a background in IT, or have you come across the open source philosophy through publishing your blog online?

I should clarify: Lessig and Stallman were inspirations, but I don’t agree with them on everything. At their most fundamental level, they believe in copyright laws and the restrictions of certain freedoms. I don’t believe in restricting any freedom, except the freedom to harm your fellow human beings.

I don’t have a background in IT, although I’ve always been interested in technology and the open source philosophy. I use open source software often (though, I must admit, not exclusively) and I root for Linux and Firefox and AbiWord and and the GIMP and many other great open source software that I love and use. I think it appeals to the anarchist that’s always been within me – I love free models for anything, whether that be software or publishing or communities.

Leo Babauta is the author of the Zen Habits blog and publisher of the Zen to Done productivity e-book. Thanks for the interview, Leo. 🙂


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  3. Aku Said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    Thorough, gripping and abolutely convincing answers + well formulated questions. I wish everyone was required to read this in school.

  4. Margaret Langston Said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 2:21 am

    Leo is my favorite blogger. I respect his opinion immensely. I bought his ebook and use the principles instilled within it in my work on a regular basis. As a former employee of Time Inc. I have first-hand knowledge of trying to protect online content. It is an exercise in futility.

    I have written my own book and am wrestling with the decision on which route to go in terms of publishing. This article has been so helpful.

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