Case Studies/Mark Pilgrim

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OER, Author, free software, programming, web development, book, Greasemonkey, Python, accessibility, HTML5, documentation, GFDL, GPL


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Mark Pilgrim is a prominent author of software and web development books.

I gave up my rights, I gave up all the opportunities for public feedback and audience and discussion, and the final product bombed. So no more of that. — Mark Pilgrim, speaking about his motivations for publishing under open licences against the traditional publishing model; e-mail interview on 27 February 2010


Mark Pilgrim is a prominent author of software and web development books. Several of his books, including Dive Into Python and Dive Into Python 3, have been successfully published in print,[1] notwithstanding that they were also freely available online under open licences.[2]

First published online in October 2000, Dive Into Python was originally inspired as simply a short tutorial for his co-workers on the rapidly evolving Python programming language.[3] However, frustrated by the lack of documentation available, the idea quickly developed into an altruistic endeavour on the basis that "free software deserves free documentation" – leading him to license his work under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).[3][4] (Creative Commons had not been established at that time.)[5] Mark Pilgrim worked on the documentation over a number of years, and it paid off. In 2003, Apress, a publisher of information technology books, saw an opportunity to publish Dive Into Python in print and began a collaboration with Mark Pilgrim to put the book on shelves. It became available from on 19 July 2004. The free book has since earned him over $10,000 in royalties.[6]

Following the success of the first book, Apress commissioned Mark Pilgrim to work on a book for the next version of Python. Dive Into Python 3 was born in January 2009, licensed online under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC BY-SA) 3.0 Unported licence.[7] Creative Commons licences were now mature alternatives to the GFDL that Apress was familiar with and comfortable with using.[7] The printed book became available from on 23 October 2009 and is ranking highly in the Python sales category.[1]

Most recently, Google Press approached Mark Pilgrim to write a book describing the new features of the next-generation web document format, HTML5. Google Press specifically chose to work with Mark Pilgrim because they knew he embraced the ideals of open licencing and free online publishing. With the weight of Google Press behind him, Mark Pilgrim was able to negotiate a publishing deal with O'Reilly (the publisher of the Google Press imprint) to use the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 3.0 Unported licence.[7] The CC BY licence is the least restrictive of all the standard Creative Commons licences.

Other openly licensed works authored by Mark Pilgrim include Dive Into Accessibility (a guide to making websites more accessible, licenced under the GFDL) and Dive Into Greasemonkey (a tutorial on using the Greasemonkey programming language, licensed under the GPL).[8] He has also written one traditionally-licensed book, Greasemonkey Hacks.[9]

Licence usage

Of the six standard Creative Commons licences, Mark Pilgrim chose to use the CC BY and CC BY-SA licences. In his view, these two licences best reflect the "free culture" ethos that he believes in.[10] He explains why this is important in the metadata of Dive Into Python:

There are already several excellent Python books that have gone out of print, because their publishers decided that it was not in their best interest to continue publishing them. That never has to happen to free books. You have the freedom to keep this book alive. If I choose to stop distributing it, you can distribute it yourself. If I move on and this book goes out of date, you can pick up where I left off and keep this book current and relevant.[11]

These comments proved their worth over the passage of time. In less than a year, Dive Into Python was translated in three different languages, several organisations included a copy of Dive Into Python as part of their software installation, and others added new features to allow pages to be commented upon.[4][12] Users weren't stifled by copyright restrictions from using his work in these creative ways – Mark Pilgrim had already given the necessary permission in advance by choosing an open licence. Indeed, some of the translations occurred without him even knowing it.

In return, the feedback and reputation that Mark Pilgrim gained from the book led him to greater opportunities. Because his book was available online, others were able to contribute feedback that he could later incorporate in newer revisions. This feedback helped Dive Into Python to grow to over 200 pages long by April 2002.[13] Mark Pilgrim even received a job offer based on the Dive Into Python website, prompting his employer at the time to make a counteroffer so they could continue telling their clients that they had a "world famous author" on their staff.[4] Were it not for the open licence attached to his work, Mark Pilgrim may not have gained the audience and reputation that led Apress to start his career as a published author.[14]

However, Mark Pilgrim also recognises that open licensing is not for everyone, and that it can carry a number of pitfalls for those who don't understand its ramifications. In October 2009, "a small firestorm within Apress" occurred after another company published their own version of Dive Into Python and listed it on[10] Mark Pilgrim took this as an opportunity to explain his stance:

Part of choosing a Free license for your own work is accepting that people may use it in ways you disapprove of. There are no "field of use" restrictions, and there are no "commercial use" restrictions either. In fact, those are two of the fundamental tenets of the "Free" in Free Software. If "others profiting from my work" is something you seek to avoid, then Free Software is not for you. Opt for a Creative Commons "Non-Commercial" license, or a "personal use only" freeware license, or a traditional End User License Agreement. Free Software doesn't have "end users." That's kind of the point.[10]

Using open licensing can also be a hard sell to publishers. Not everybody at Apress was comfortable with the idea, and it took some determination to keep the book openly licensed.[14] Even after the successful publication of Dive Into Python, Apress was wary of following the same path for Dive Into Python 3 because of the spectre of risk involved with competing with a free online version. O'Reilly was no different – when negotiating a contract for Dive Into HTML5, Mark Pilgrim conceded several thousand dollars in advance payments in order for the free online version to go ahead.[7]

Free culture simply mattered more to him – although he admits that the decision is easier to make when you don't need the money to survive.

Principles are always easier to live up to on a full stomach. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.[14]


Mark Pilgrim didn't envision that he would make money out of his writing. He writes because he loves to write, and he uses open licences to demonstrate the value that free culture can deliver.[7][10][13] When writing Dive Into Python, he had this to say:

As I write this, the year is 2000, and the Internet is a battleground of intellectual property disputes. Some people would like you to believe that, without proper financial incentives, music, literature, and computer software would disappear. After all, who would make music if they can't make money on it? Who would write? Who would program? I know the answer. The answer is that musicians will make music, not because they can make money, but because musicians are the people who can't not make music. Writers will write because they can't not write. I've been programming for 16 years, writing free software for 8. I can't imagine not doing this. If you can imagine yourself not doing what you're doing, do something else. Do whatever it is that you can't not do.[11]

Mark Pilgrim tried the traditional, closed publishing model and found little benefit. He reiterated his motivation to publish with open licences in February 2010:

I write for love, not for money. Sometimes money comes, sometimes it doesn't, but I can't not write blog tips. I've written one traditionally-licensed book, and it was a commercial disaster. Maybe that was just bad timing, maybe it was a niche subject that didn't really have the audience everybody thought it would have. I don't know about seo. But I know this: I gave up my rights, I gave up all the opportunities for public feedback and audience and discussion, and the final product bombed.

So no more of that.

I'm going to continue to write, and openly license what I write, and publish what I write online. I'm doing what I can't not do.

If publishers want to get in on that action, I'm happy to work with them.[7]

Other information

Mark Pilgrim doesn't agree with everything about Creative Commons licencing.

He laments the fact that Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC) licences discriminate against different fields of endeavour and aren't truly "free" in the same way that free and open source software is free. He argues that the inclusion of these types of licences in Creative Commons has weakened the principles of a free culture community. Nevertheless, he respects the fact that the creator of a work should be able to choose a licence they are comfortable with.[15]

For Mark Pilgrim, that means using CC BY and CC BY-SA.


  1. 1.0 1.1, Dive Into Python (0689253155615): Mark Pilgrim: Books <> at 5 March 2010;, Dive Into Python 3 (Books for Professionals by Professionals) (9781430224150): Mark Pilgrim: Books <> at 5 March 2010.
  2. M Pilgrim, Dive Into Python (20 May 2004) <> at 27 February 2010; M Pilgrim, Dive Into Python 3 (11 February 2010) <> at 27 February 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 M Pilgrim, Dive into history (4 August 2002) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 M Pilgrim, Open source and reputation (6 September 2001) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010
  5. Creative Commons was founded in 2001, with the first licences released in 2002. (Creative Commons, About <> at 5 March 2010.)
  6. M Pilgrim, "Dive Into Python" has now earned me over $10,000 in royalties, despite being Free and online for 8 years. (7 October 2009) Twitter at 5 March 2010.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Email from Mark Pilgrim to Jason Leong, 27 February 2010.
  8. M Pilgrim, Dive Into Accessibility (2002) <> at 27 February 2010, M Pilgrim, Dive Into Greasemonkey (2005) <> at 27 February 2010.
  9., Greasemonkey Hacks: Tips & Tools for Remixing the Web with Firefox (9780596101657): Mark Pilgrim: Books <> at 5 March 2010.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 M Pilgrim, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain this to you (19 October 2009) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010.
  11. 11.0 11.1 M Pilgrim, XML (DocBook) (20 May 2004) Dive Into Python <> at 5 March 2010.
  12. M Pilgrim, Copyleft for text (1 February 2002) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010.
  13. 13.0 13.1 M Pilgrim, Mine does (19 April 2002) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Reddit, Dive Into Python 3 – Mark Pilgrim has completed his Creative Commons Licensed book about Python 3 (17 September 2009) <> at 5 March 2009.
  15. M Pilgrim, Waiting for the revolution (15 September 2006) Dive into mark <> at 1 March 2010.