November 14, 2006

Open Shakespeare aims to free the Bard

Author: Michael Stutz

Open Shakespeare is a UK-based project to publish a fully open edition of Shakespeare's works. It's not trying to be another "Shakespeare on the Web," just providing an HTMLized copy of the plays and works. Its goal is to produce a reusable package of free and open material, including the main source texts, encodings in various open formats including XML and PDF, ancillary material, a Python API, and other documentation and tools.

The project was formed under the aegis of the Open Knowledge Foundation, whose stated mission is the promotion and development of "open knowledge."

"We have had quite a bit of contact with the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons in one way or another," says project leader Rufus Pollock, who is a member of the Creative Commons UK team, "but we aren't working with either of them on anything specific at present."

Pollock, along with main contributors Jo Walsh and Tom Chance, intends Open Shakespeare to be a complete showcase for the "open knowledge" concept: a good pedagogical example of how such works might be packaged and presented, and what APIs and software might be useful with them.

"There are obviously some really amazing big examples such as Wikipedia," Pollock says, but he notes that there is still no such single work that constitutes a complete and self-contained open "package" in a software sense. He thought that the works of William Shakespeare would be a good subject to demonstrate this -- it would be text-based, a body of work that most everyone is familiar with, and old enough to be safely in the public domain.

Finding free Shakespeare

A lot of minds have attempted to tackle the idea of Shakespeare on the Net. The Bard is represented by no fewer than 131 online publications -- but finding a free distribution of the complete works is another matter.

The obvious first stop in such a journey is Project Gutenberg, where plenty of Shakespeare texts appear -- but as it turns out, about half of them are non-free works taken from The Library of the Future and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare CD-ROMs, and are copyrighted by the World Library.

To add further confusion, there's another site, unaffiliated with Open Shakespeare, called Open Source Shakespeare.

Since Project Gutenberg does have public domain editions among their published Shakespeare works, Pollock was able to use them.

"You do have to go through and work out which are the public domain versions and which aren't," he says. "You also need to strip off all the Gutenberg stuff, since otherwise you are bound by the Gutenberg license."

They also use the public-domain Moby editions. Still lacking are image scans of the source material. The first publication of Shakespeare's complete plays, known today as the First Folio, has been widely reproduced in facsimile form, and is well-represented on the Internet -- but those scans are not free or open at all.

Considering the age of Shakespeare's works, one might assume that all of it would be automatically in the public domain. Pollock explains the complexity at work, where at least three factors are at play: anyone can take a public domain work and, with modifications, release it as a proprietary work; if an old work is only now being published for the first time, it may still be in copyright; and scans of a public domain work may be copyrighted in places outside the US, particularly in Europe.

What's to come

Open Shakespeare so far has placed a demo online, which shows how to view or download copies of the texts in various formats, conduct side-by-side comparisons of editions, and search a word concordance of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Pollock, who says he is working on a Ph.D. in Economics at Cambridge University, admits that as of yet there hasn't been much interest from the academic community in his project -- but the project hasn't yet explored those connections, either. "We have spoken with someone who prepares critical editions and he has given us some leads, but we haven't really followed it up yet," he says. "We really hope to get some academic involvement -- especially in developing an 'open' set of textual notes."

Indeed, it's the lack of free critical notes and ancillary material, such as headnotes and footnotes to the plays, that is probably the team's greatest roadblock. But while they plan to do this, and to produce a "glossy" edition that is suitable for print, Pollock admits that someone else might take their sources and do a better job at it -- and that's all right with him.

"I'm sure there will be others out there who will do it differently and perhaps better. For me that is the big benefits of openness; it allows many minds to address the same problem."

Category:

  • Open Source
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