An accidental author

So it turns out (to my considerable surprise) that I’m a published author. And not just dusty-thesis-in-a-university-library published, or dull-article-in-a-refereed-journal published, or even letter-to-the-editor published, but a real author of a real book with a cover and spine and the whole nine yards. You can even buy my book from and Barnes and Noble. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from the publisher soon about the international book tour and signing events.

I wonder how many other authors are surprised to find they are listed on With the advent of free software came the parallel revolution in free documentation for software. “Free” here does not mean free-as-in-beer: companies are free-as-in-freedom to take these works and publish them for a profit. As a sometimes free-software and free-documentation author, it does give you a warm glow when you make that initial contribution to the world, signing away your future rights under the auspices of the GPL. I know it’s not up there with saving poor children from hunger or providing world peace, but it’s something, y’know. But that warm glow becomes something of a sour taste when others profit from your work without so much as a by-your-leave.

You might think it’s a little ironic that I came to be the author of a book which supports a free-software rival to the company I work for, and you’d be right. The reason is that a couple of years ago I was trying to correct a previous injustice, where work I had written had been appropriated without any acknowledgement whatsoever. Back in my university days, I wrote part of a free guide to a certain commercial software package, and that document became widely distributed. (Since that time, I joined the company that makes that software — hence the rather obtuse references.) R is a GPL copy of the software my company makes, which emerged a few years ago, and that document I wrote part of was absorbed wholesale to become the manual for R … without attributing me at all! I wrote several chapters of that document, and as Paulette knows writing software documentation (and especially writing it well) is no mean task. I was miffed enough to demand that my name (and affiliation) was added to the manual, which has become the source of this book. I guess in practical terms it’s no different than having the R manual available for download in PDF format, but when it appears in physical book form it just seems to take it up a level.

The original document “Notes on S” contained this copyright notice: “These notes may be freely copied and redistributed for any educational purpose provided the copyright notice remains intact. Where appropriate, a small charge to cover the costs of production and distribution, only, may be made.” Purportedly the new publisher, Network Theory in the UK, donates all the profits to Free Software, so it’s debatable whether this is a violation. Removing (or changing) a copyright notice certainly is, though, although the blame there probably goes to the R authors. So what am I going to do about it? Probably nothing, except to ask the publisher for the free copy they offer to authors. Let’s see if they manage to send it. A proactive gesture would have been a whole lot nicer — it’s not as if I’m that hard to find in cyberspace.

It’s incidents like this which have rather soured me to the Free Software movement. (This isn’t the only incident that has affected me personally, by the way: I wrote an entire manual to an Emacs extension — S-mode — which ran to a few hundred pages and was also appropriated wholesale and without attribution by the subsequent maintainers of the project.) Ideals are all well and good, but it seems they often turn to zealotry which can leave the details of copyright, attribution, and general good manners behind. I strongly feel that there is a role for both free and commercial software in this world, and it behooves both parties to recognize that fact and to play by their own rules.

One thought on “An accidental author”

  1. This is just outrageous! Couldn’t your employer get a bit miffed about this as well? And please, ask for more than one free copy. Clearly I want one for my SS+K reference shelf.

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