A free license does not mean that a book is free. The following are common strategies for copyright protection that are exercised by producers of 'freely licensed content':
Not-free free license
A not-free book in this context uses a license that appears free but isn't really. Licenses like the Free Documentation License and those Creative Commons licenses that have NonCommerical (NC) or NoDerivatives (ND) conditions are not free. I don’t want to get into this here as it is a lengthy and (in my opinion) boring conversation but the bottom line for me is – can you use this book in any way you want? If the answer is no, its a not-free book.
Many publishers use two licenses for their content. Strange but true. They use a standard copyright all rights reserved license and something like a Creative Commons license, or sometimes there is just confusing and conflicting information. If you want an example take a look at page vi of the following:
It states :
“This book is published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 license”
Sounds good but it is soon followed by a lengthy ‘go away’ clause that reads :
“This publication is protected by copyright, and permission must be obtained from the publisher prior to any prohibited reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, or transmission in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or likewise unless permitted under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license”.
That is, in my opinion, confusing to most readers. CC BY SA is one of the most free licenses but the clause reads like a standard ‘all rights reserved’ (proprietary) license and would send off the same signals to the average reader ie. go away and dont even bother to try and do something with this book (other than read it). This is not-free.
This is the worst type of not-freedom as it is essentially a trick to appear free while actually employing a mechanical form of copyright protection. Many books might use very good free licenses and use very bold, unambiguous and clear license statements. So, does this make it free? Well, no. The reason is that in order for something to be re-used it needs to first be in a state that enables its re-use. For example PDF is not a good re-usable format. Printed books are also not a good re-usable format. Both of these formats allow content to be copied but this is not the same as re-used. This kind of trick is often used by publishers wanting to gain currency and favor in the Free Culture or Open Educational Resources sectors. To them we can only say: WE NEED THE SOURCE.
Many otherwise very good free works fail to even offer the content in formats that can be easily transformed. Offering the source would allow readers to create other formats. One very good example is the Theory On Demand1 series which only offers PDF and online FLASH player versions of the books - you cannot get the sources so you cannot create EPUBs for your iPad or Mobi for your kindle.
However if ‘free’ means that only copying is allowed then it is a poor freedom to have. We want to be able to change books, convert them to other formats, translate them, improve them – as free licenses suggest we can. What if I want to change the contents of a book how do I do it? If I have to first reproduce the book by manually typing out 40,000 words then the book is practically not-free. It is for this reason that free culture licenses should mandate that books (it is not a clause applicable to all media) must provide the source somewhere (online is suffice) in plain text or other standardised popular format. Currently most free licenses do not require this so many books can avoid this issue while still calling themselves free.
Further to this I would argue that all books must make it known through the appendices, colophon, or in the body of the text itself where the original raw sources can be found.
On this topic Creative Commons licenses are actually ill equipped to tackle this issue. The source of books should be available for anyone to access so they can easily work with the book and if we must (yawn) live in a world of copyright then the license should at least require that the book source be available. Currently Creative Commons licenses do not require this whereas the General Public License (and others) does.
Access to the editable source of a book is a pre-condition for a free book.
Lastly lets re-examine the culture of proprietorship. In the world of software there are two main types of software - free/open and proprietary. The former is licensed with open licenses enabling reuse and alteration etc and the latter licensed under closed all-rights-reserved copyright licenses and complicated end user agreements. Suffice to say that the effect of proprietary software is that you can’t easily inspect and audit it, understand how it works, change it to work for you or your community, remove anti-features such as tracking added by the vendor, etc.
However free software can also suffer from cultural proprietorship regardless of the license used. Essentially if you do not feel that you have the mandate to change something then you are not empowered to change it. This can often be the consequence of the culture of a free software project - many of which are not open cultures by any means. Mostly they are male dominated meritocracies which intimidate many would be contributors.
The same scenario can exist for book production regardless of the license being used. In fact books have a heavy cultural legacy of proprietorship that we must work hard to overcome. Books are made by "authors" and it is difficult to challenge the domain of the author even if the author is obviously not a single person. Evidence of collaboration in the production of a work is not the same as enabling an open mandate to change or fork (copy and change) a work. We must overcome this by celebrating the possibilities of forking and altering other peoples works. We do this by doing it. Without doing this - without actively participating and taking advantage of the riches that free culture production offers we are maintaining the processes and values of proprietary (closed) culture.