Making a living authoring public domain works

There are a couple models for paying authors of public domain educational works that I think would work reasonably well. (For reasons why educational works should be released into the public domain, see A case for public domain educational material). The first is the street performer protocol, which I discussed in a previous post. The other, which is more tailored to the specific problem of how authors of public domain educational works are paid will be described here. I call this model the Educator Donation Model.

Virtually all educational institutions use hard copies of educational works in their classrooms. This is likely to remain the case for some time because of people’s preference for reading educational material from a book rather than on a screen. As a result, educational institutions will continue to purchase printed educational works from publishers even if all the educational works they use are in the public domain since it is still relatively expensive to print a class set of textbooks oneself.

To pay the authors, publishers selling printed educational works that are in the public domain could sell the textbooks for the price of the materials and production plus an additional author-defined fee that would go directly to the author. If an educational institution wishes to purchase textbooks that will support the author, then they will buy the textbooks from the publisher that the author receives money from for each textbook sold. If the educational institution is not in a financial position to pay that price, then they can go to a publisher that pays the author less money per textbook than the author has stated they would like. This would remain legal because the work is in the public domain so anyone is free to make copies of it.

This is much the same way that copyright fees work today, but with the difference that only publishers authorized by the author of the work are permitted to make copies of the work. In the scenario described above, any publisher can make copies of the work and sell them for whatever price they like, giving the author as much or as little of the profit as they like.

This model requires a few things to make it work well. First of all, it relies on the author to tell the purchaser of the printed work how much they receive for a sale of that work from a given publisher. This allows the educational institution to make an informed choice about where their money is being spent. Secondly, it relies on the average educational institution choosing to pay a reasonable price for the book. I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that an education institution would make such a decision because it is in their best interest to support the authors of educational works.

This mechanism works particularly well for academic journals, which educational institutions subscribe to in order to receive paper copies of educational works on a regular basis. Since the subscription is paid on a regular basis, authors that regularly contribute to a particular journal will receive compensation on a regular basis. This contrasts with textbooks where the author can expect significant income in the first few months that the book is released, with substantially reduced income from the sales of that textbook thereafter.

For those educational institutions that do not purchase their own printed educational works but rely on the students to purchase them instead, such institutions could change their policies so that fees for printed educational works are built into the course fees and every student gets a textbook.

It would also work for individuals to choose textbooks in the same way that educational institutions choose them, but I chose not to explore this option for a couple reasons. First of all, the vast majority of purchases of printed educational works are made by educational institutions (this is especially true if we use the model in the previous paragraph where institutions provide printed educational works to students). This makes how individuals choose to buy their printed educational works less important. Secondly, individuals tend to buy products with their own interests in mind while educational institutions buy products with the goal of furthering education. This makes it less likely that individuals will choose to pay more for a textbook than the average educational institution.

As a final note, it is important to consider what will happen when educational institutions begin using fewer textbooks in favor of technologies such as OLED displays and especially electronic paper. In this case, an educational institution no longer needs to purchase a particular number of textbooks, but can instead access as many copies of public domain educational works as they please without additional cost (assuming the use of a computer lab or sets of books using electronic paper, for example). The author could setup a tiered donation system based on how many people use the author’s educational work at an educational institution, which the educational institution would use to guide them in their decision on how much to pay the author. As before, we assume that the educational institution’s decisions will be determined by how the decisions benefit education as a whole, which usually cause them to donate to the author the amount they suggest for the use of the author’s public domain educational work.

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