Why Attribution is not Sustainable

Its easy to understand the problems with attribution. In the 1 book 1 author days it was easy – put the author’s name on the cover. 50 years later, same book same solution.

However this does not work for collaboratively produced works and it is one of the most difficult issues for free culture going forward. Already in FLOSS Manuals we have books that have 8 pages of credits – each chapter individually referenced with the copyright and attribution data. Some books have 40-50 chapters and some chapters have 20+ collaborators, all of which need to be listed. We solved the problem of generating these lists – we know who made what edits if they are done in Booktype so we just automatically generate this list. However this is just the beginning and we are already asking ourselves – is 8 pages of credits really necessary?

The answer is that no it is not necessary. Attribution is not as important with collaboratively produced works as one might have suspected. Those involved in the process are not too worried about it – there is some kind of excitement generated by pushing your name forward as a protagonist at some key moment in the life of a book but this can happen in the text, as part of the books story, or in press releases, blog posts etc. We don’t actually need attribution – the prominent foregrounding of all the names of the individuals involved in production. What we need is backgrounding of this information and the ability to know the history and lineage of a book.

We need standards to maintain history records for a books development and we also need this to be stored in publicly accessible repositories so we can check this information for interests sake or more meaningful use such as historical record, or research.

These records of book history could be also very necessary for verification of content. If for example we use open licenses or (one day) no copyright then how do we verify quotes (for example; actually provenance is orthogonal to copyright restrictions, indeed these are an obstacle to maintaining provenance, but people often ask this question)? How do I know that this book which purports to be the thoughts of the author actually are the thoughts of the author and not some malicious edit mascarading as such?

Currently in free software circles there are at least three major strategies for dealing with this kind of issue:

Use a publicly trusted source for the distribution of content so people know that if the book comes from a trusted source it is what it says it is.
Use a ‘check sum’ – a method for verifying of any errors have been introduced in the text during the transmission (delivery) of the content.
Digitally sign content so that it can be verified as coming from the purported source.
Libraries or public archives could play a very strong role here. Records of history would become very important in a federated or prolific free content environment not just for research but for providing public mechanisms and standards for the ongoing verification of sources.

Attribution is the star system of the single author single book publishing system. With the breakdown of these models or at least with the diversification of these models author attribution will out of necessity become a more transient commodity. Collating version and contribution history however might become a business in itself.

Which is all to say that lowercase attribution (a useful bit of provenance info) is sustainable. By contrast, Attribution to Authors as creator-gods is suspect and superfluous.