Daniel Margocsy: After e-book, f-book (an essay from 2002)

“f-book means free book”

Internet publishing houses are haunted by two ghosts: the ghost of market-oriented thinking and the ghost of inane imitation. The f-book movement puts forward the idea of a freely accessible, subsidized culture; and promotes a novel concept of the book: the free book. Founded in 2000 in Hungary, the f-book is a rapidly expanding project; and it invites supporters all around the globe to join the movement.

Subsidized culture: The way to freedom

The past decade serves us as an example how a product originally intended for the facilitation of free communication is taken up by market-oriented companies. This trend should be hailed: these institutions have made it possible that the Internet become widespread all over the world. Nonetheless, while endorsing all the achievements and supporting all the rights of market-oriented organizations, the f-book movement offers an alternative to the culture they promote — a state-sponsored culture.

For centuries, culture has been divided along the lines of high and popular art. A clearer distinction should replace these fuzzy concepts. For the purposes of the f-book, it is sufficient to talk about two classes of cultural assets: those supported by market-oriented companies, and those that non-profit organizations decide to sponsor. Cultural assets that do not belong to any of these categories will not survive in the long run.

In Europe, the state has always been the main non-profit supporter of culture. In the future, the European Union should maintain its role as a sponsor of the culture it deems worth preserving. This culture ought to remain available for everyone: the principles of democracy require that taxpayers should all have equal opportunities to access the culture they are supporting with their money. This is the only way they can evaluate whether the state spends their contributions according to their own will.

At the moment, it is only a dream that European states have the financial means to provide free and unlimited access to all subsidized cultural products. Moreover, it is practically impossible that, for instance, everyone be able to attend concerts of subsidized orchestras. Concert halls cannot accommodate the population of a country. An alternative solution should be sought that offers citizens the opportunity to access culture.

The f-book movement argues that the Internet-based f-book may provide a means to achieve this goal. Citizens do not expect European states to spend most of their expenditure on creating on-line databases of all subsidized culture. It is a reasonable claim, on the other hand, that no one should prevent non-profit organizations from making culture freely available on the Net. The European Union, therefore, should create the legal grounds for providing free access of culture to NGOs willing to put these works online free of charge.

If an NGO expresses its serious intent to create an on-line version of a subsidized cultural product, the authors should give the organization free access to all their work. In practical terms: if an on-line radio wishes to broadcast the concert of a subsidized orchestra, the direction of the orchestra should not take any steps to prevent this from happening.

These principles do not apply to products sponsored solely by market-based companies. These organizations can only exist if they make profit. European states should provide the legal grounds necessary for free market. No infringement of copyright can be tolerated; to give an Internet-related example: all file-sharing software that promotes the free trade of copyrighted material should be prohibited.

Nonetheless, if a market-based organization accepts state support, it should be obliged to immediately suspend its exclusive rights to Internet publication. It may still make profit on non-Internet-based versions of its products. Orchestras sponsored by the state may still produce and sell CDs to the public. They should make their recordings available, however, to anyone who wishes to publish them on the Internet.

Subsidized culture and Internet: Immediate benefits

Good reasons suggest that the Internet is the perfect medium for letting taxpayer citizens access the culture they are supporting. Internet publication is cheaper, more reliable and more easily accessible than any other method, including the printing press. In a couple of years, everyone in Europe will have free access to the Web. No one will be deprived of the possibility to access on-line material.

The f-book is cheaper than any of its rivals in publishing. It eradicates the costs of production. Whereas the printing industry consumes immense amounts of paper every year, thereby endangering the biosphere of the Earth, Internet publishers only need a hard disk connected to the Web. Once a printed book is out on the market, all its mistakes remain in the work forever. Internet publications can continuously be updated. Online culture is available at every terminal around the globe: no customer should care about shipping costs.

With the practice of free Internet publishing, enthusiastic scholars in all countries will have the opportunity to make their cultural assets available to everyone interested. A more egalitarian society’s vision comes to one’s mind. If the same culture is available for everyone, the distinction and inequality between center and periphery disappear. Just as public health or retirement benefits, subsidized culture becomes available for everyone for a reasonable price: the amount of tax they are paying. The state no longer serves the interests of an elite – everyone is treated equally.

European states have long been fighting for the acceptance of egalitarian principles. The Internet offers them the long-desired solution. By re-arranging their priorities, European states will have a powerful tool to preserve and disseminate their culture.

This democratic online culture, however, should not be equated with the Internet of nowadays. Current state-supported websites lack originality. Internet publishing is only at a nascent stage. The e-books on the market have nothing to do with free culture. The next step in the development of online publishing may very well be the f-book.

F-book: A novel concept

Thousands of electronic publications attest that e-books are not as innovative as they should be. Countless are the websites that show the vast possibilities of the Internet; unfortunately, academic and literary publishers hardly ever take up these challenges. They usually come up with products that are stunningly similar to our old, beloved, printed books. The new media are still using the well-established forms of print culture.

Early print culture mimicked late medieval techniques. For instance, just as codices, incunabula lacked title pages. The printed book proper came into being decades after Gutenberg had died. Similarly, daguerreotypes for a long time were but a new, more accurate strand of realist academic painting – photography in our sense was only invented later. No wonder that electronic publishers have fallen into the same trap and failed to come up with groundbreaking innovations.

It is high time that scholars and artists began to investigate the not-so-hidden potentials of the Web. According to the prevailing doctrine, publishers and academics digitize their print publications; and put it on their websites without any alteration. This attitude should be abandoned. It is time to realize that PDF files won’t do for the young, web-based generation. The new literacy of the Web is being born these days. Electronic publishers had better adapt before they disappear from the scene.

The novel Internet-based book, the f-book, does not share the characteristics of the printed book. Unlike their predecessors, f-books are not static. Their format and content are constantly updated. They may show a new face each time the reader revisits the text. They may invite the reader to re-create them. F-books have more to do with medieval manuscripts than with print culture. Texts in the Middle Ages could always be reshaped; each scribe ‘re-wrote’ the author’s work, instead of mechanically copying it. The Internet may revive these practices.

This is why the idea of the f-book does not comprise CD-ROMs and DVDs. These products freeze the text at a certain moment, leaving no leeway for future emendations. One can come up with constantly updated CDs of their works, as Hungarian painter Dezső Váli does, but these disks can never be as accurate as the Internet version of the same product.

The f-book is a novel concept: it binds form and content together. It is by definition pliant and freely modifiable. Printed matter and e-books are known not to have these essential qualities. In technical terms, f-books can only be created by using software whose source codes are freely available and modifiable. Files in txt, sgml, html format comply with the f-book’s standards. The commercial products of Adobe and Microsoft, PDF and LIT, unfortunately do not support these solutions. The f-book works together with free software movements around the globe: the Free Software Foundation, GNU, Linux and FreeBSD. It is strongly against the modification of the current doctrines of the European Patent Office; software should only be patented if it involves privately developed technical innovations.

As for its inner structure, the potentials of the f-book cannot be underestimated. Clearly, f-books are easy to search and to modify. Various passages from one of text can appear on the screen, neatly put next to each other. But the main question remains: What other innovations are possible? One possible answer was developed by Gépeskönyv: the stochastic book. The f-book movement warmly welcomes all other solutions.

The f-book does not advocate the death of the Gutenberg galaxy. Traditional works of art produced either in the past or in the future form an important part of our culture. Printed matters continue to be of great importance to our society. The f-book presents a recommended alternative in a new medium that complements but does not substitute print culture.

Stochastic Reading

Gépeskönyv works on the development of a special domain of web publishing. The company uses the f-book’s possibilities to publish scholarly, critical editions of literary works Based on the laws of combinatory mathematics, these editions use pre-determined chance.

In seeking the idea of an original, authoritative text, critical editions have always struggled with an insurmountable problem. Not even the most accurate scholars, who have perused all extant variants of a text, can truly decide why at certain passages, different sources diverge from each other. They do not have any rational arguments for deciding which sources mirror the ideas of the author.

In the era of the printing press, editors picked the only available solution in these cases (with the notable exception of some German scholars). The editors chose the version closest to their hearts and listed other variants in the footnotes. The f-book allows for another solution. Once the text is established, ambiguous passages are identified, and all variants are listed, the editor lets chance decide what happens A random number generator picks one of the variants and shows that one on the screen. Should the reader wish to see another alternative; a new, equally plausible variant appears on the screen by pressing one button.

In theory, the development of such software seems a routine procedure. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Oftentimes, the interpretation of one ambiguous passage is interdependent upon other ambiguous passages. In such cases, the text should remain coherent. For instance, if the editor opts for one reading of a certain heroine’s name, the same variant of the name should appear on the screen at each mention of her In regular practice, more complex interdependencies occur on almost every page. Therefore, for each critical edition, it is inevitable that new software be tailored to the needs of the specific text.

Hopes for the future

Internet society is committed to the freedom of the dissemination of ideas. The f-book movement is not the only initiative to promulgate free Internet publication. Worries about the future of online academic publishing were already voiced at the launching of the Journal of Machine Learning Research. The editors of the journal claimed that current electronic publishing methods reiterate the mistakes of the printing press. MIT, with a generous gesture, has recently announced to make all its course material freely available on the Internet. The f-book fully supports these projects and invites them to re-think together the format of electronic publication.

Stochastic critical editions are just one way of exploring the new possibilities of the Internet in the preservation culture. At the moment, the f-book project’s main task is to convince the European Union of the importance of free Internet publishing by giving adequate reasons for its support; and by creating convincing exemplars of the f-book. As European states realize the immense potential of the f-book, the movement will gain momentum and new scientific and artistic workshops will appear all around Europe.

This article, intended to articulate the author’s personal view on the f-book movement’s future, has been written in strong collaboration with Iván Horváth ELTE — Université de Paris III-Nouvelle Sorbonne. It draws upon the recent publications of Iván Horváth and the F-book project. The author would like to thank Iván Horváth and members of the F-book project for their contribution to and comments on the essay.