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Seven Hundred Issues, a CMS, and Creative Commons

We like to announce changes to mark the ticking by of large even numbers on the TidBITS odometer. In 1997, TidBITS-400 introduced our dynamic Web site, all driven via Lasso from FileMaker databases, with glue provided by HyperCard, AppleScript, and Retrospect. For TidBITS-500 in 1999, we introduced polls and completely redesigned our home page to make room for both breaking news headlines throughout the week and a listing of hot topics in TidBITS Talk.


Most recently, 2001’s TidBITS-600 gave subscribers the option of receiving TidBITS in a sparsely elegant HTML format or as a text or HTML announcement. The HTML version of the full issue in particular has become quite popular, though that list still a fraction of the size of our text-only setext list. Other changes for that issue included a printer-friendly layout option for articles; explicit links to TidBITS Talk discussions within articles; sharing of articles via email; and support for RSS so you can read TidBITS in NetNewsWire, MacTracker, Radio UserLand, or your favorite RSS client. And yes, I’m telling you about these services because I suspect many readers don’t realize they’re are available.


Choosing a CMS — As much as I’d like to announce a sweeping Web site overhaul so we can extract ourselves from a system that has grown awkwardly since we introduced it in 1997, our efforts to put a powerful new content management system (CMS) into place haven’t yet come to fruition. Back in April, we reported on our progress and solicited additional recommendations from readers. We’ve spent much of the time since then evaluating different contenders, some in great detail.


Honestly, it’s been a roller coaster ride. We’d start looking at a program, get excited about everything it promised, and then discover some major architectural limitation. We had to eliminate one promising package when we realized that it wanted to display every content object in the system in a hierarchical interface that looked a bit like a Finder window with disclosure triangles. That might work for many sites, but since we already have nearly 6,000 articles and 19,000 TidBITS Talk messages, such an interface would bog down instantly. Several other highly attractive content management systems claimed to support email newsletters, but when we looked deeper, it turned out they couldn’t send articles in the database out via email (you had to create the newsletters by hand!). And in general, there seemed to be a general lack of understanding of the kind of ubiquitous linking we use between articles and other content objects. As Ted Nelson so famously said, "Everything is intertwingled," and we’re not willing to lose meaningful connections between related articles, or between articles and discussions.

Of course, there was always that nagging open source answer to any criticism: "Oh, that’s a great idea! Why don’t you write that and submit it back so everyone else can take advantage of it too?" Open source is a great concept, but someone still has to do the work, and that person needs to earn a living somehow. Our estimate for customizing Tiki, the most promising of the open source content management packages, came in at more than 200 hours and $10,000, and that was before diving into the mess of integrating with a huge email list. (That said, Tiki is extremely cool, runs under Mac OS X, and is absolutely worth a look if you don’t need the kind of ubiquitous linking and email integration that we do.)


But we have made a decision, and in some ways, it’s an affirmation of a possibility we looked at briefly early on in the process: Web Crossing. For those that haven’t seen it, Web Crossing is a hugely powerful package that’s aimed primarily at providing online community tools (there is also a free version that provides Web, email, and FTP servers). Apple uses it for their discussion forums, as do many other high-profile sites like Salon. We certainly need more than just online community tools, but Web Crossing actually provides all the building blocks for creating a full-fledged content management system, with an object-oriented database and Web, email, FTP, and NNTP servers, among others. With Web Crossing 5.0, the program became entirely modular, enabling upgrades that don’t overwrite any custom modifications, and adding weblog and wiki plug-ins.


More important, Tim Lundeen and the other folks at Web Crossing are extremely interested in turning Web Crossing into a robust content management package (with the weblog and wiki plug-ins as first steps in that direction). So, to knock off multiple birds with a single inexpensive stone, we’re going to be working with Tim and the others at Web Crossing to develop our content management system, with an eye toward helping them create a powerful CMS that has all the features that we found lacking elsewhere.

The process is just beginning, and we hope to be replacing aspects of the TidBITS infrastructure piece by piece with equivalent (or better) systems written in Web Crossing over the next few months.

Creative Commons License — Our choice of Web Crossing as a content management system is significant, but it won’t have an effect for a bit yet. Our second announcement for our seven hundredth issue is perhaps just the reverse, a very small change that takes effect right now.

Since the earliest days of TidBITS, we’ve always encouraged non-commercial publications like user group newsletters to reprint our articles, as long as they retain the original author’s byline and credit TidBITS as the source of the article. User group newsletter editors from all around the world have used our articles to fill space and beef up their newsletters, which in turn helps keep user groups vibrant and alive.

Our overall goal isn’t changing, and non-commercial publications will still be able to reprint articles, but as of today, all TidBITS issues will be governed by a Creative Commons license. I’ve written about Creative Commons in "A Couple of Cool Concepts" in TidBITS-617, and it’s an extremely worthwhile project that aims to expand the range of creative work that can be shared and built-upon by others.


To that end, Creative Commons has established a number of initiatives. The Licensing Project helps users build licenses that provide to the public some of the rights normally restricted to the copyright holder. The Founders’ Copyright project allows copyright holders to dedicate their work to the public domain after just 14 years, the initial term of copyright established by the First Congress of the United States in 1790. Computer book publisher O’Reilly and Associates has given all of their authors the option of covering books under the Founders’ Copyright; both Tonya and I have placed our work for O’Reilly under Founders’ Copyright to ensure that the books go into the public domain after 14 years, which is probably 12 years after they’ve sold their last copy. Lastly, the International Commons project aims to draft and adopt country-specific Creative Commons licenses that take local laws into account throughout the world.

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Anyway, I ran through the simple steps on the Creative Commons Web site to generate an "Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial" license, and that’s what will now govern the use of TidBITS content. As I said before, there’s no significant difference from before, other than that reprinted articles will have to mention the Creative Commons license – we’ll change our suggested reprint boilerplate text to accommodate it.

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Why go to the effort of using the Creative Commons license if there’s no particular difference from what we’ve always done? Because, and I speak as someone who makes his living from copyright, I think the current copyright regime is fundamentally flawed in ways that bias the system toward large companies and at the expense of the public, all while failing to promote the creativity of the individual any more than was achieved with the very first instantiation of copyright law in the United States. Between the Licensing Project and Founders’ Copyright, the people behind Creative Commons are working on, well, creative ways of helping the public interact with a wide range of content while helping creators meet their goals in making that content available. More power to them.

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