Re: "community" or "user" generated documentation

Subject: Re: "community" or "user" generated documentation
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2005 21:06:52 -0700


Victoria M. Sharpe wrote:

I've been working part-time for a company writing documentation and find myself in a new situation. The product I am documenting already has some online community/user generated documentation, due to the previous poor customer service response and lack of detailed documentation. At first I thought it would make my job easier, but I'm finding much of it to go against standard protocol for department inclusion in our official products.

Have you experienced this with any of your documentation projects? If so, how do you handle this already existing documentation? Do you simply ignore parts of it that traditionally might not be included or happily incorporate it?

If you haven't already, one thing you should do is check its licence. If, for example, it is issued under the GNU Public Licence, you cannot legally incorporate it into any documentation that is not released under the same licence. If it is released under the Free Documentation Licence or a Creative Commons Licence, there may or may not be restrictions on how you can use it. No matter what public licence is used, at the very least you are probably obliged to give credit to everyone who has contributed to the document.

It is important to understand that free licences are NOT the same as public domain. The GNU GPL in particular has been upheld in court several times, so you could get your company into difficulties if you leave out parts, or produce a document with restricted rights that includes the free licenced material.

The easiest way around these problems is to release the documentation under the same licence. Your company looks public-spirited, and it may get some people volunteering to help. It's a very useful way to get some free publicity and improve the quality of the work, but working with FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) requires a somewhat different mindset from that found in a traditional company.

If your company is unwilling to release material under the same licence, you are probably better off writing your manual from scratch. The free and open source communities are very touchy (and understandably so) about companies using their work without paying attention to the licences. At the very least, your company won't appreciate the bad publicity if it seems a would-be predator.

While I'm interested in any responses on this issue, I'd love to hear from anyone whose documenting open source materials. How does this affect your job?

When I've documented FOSS material, the main difference is that it puts me in touch with more people outside the company.

It also gives more respect. FOSS projects are getting better about documentation these days, but most of them are still apt to greet a genuine writer with cries of relief.

But it also means being aware of licences, as I said. The payoff is that, if you release FOSS documentation, you feel that you are doing more than just collecting your pay. You're doing something to help others besides your company, and that can be a wonderful feeling.

It can take a while to get used to the new perspective, but don't let that scare you off. Once you're used to it, doing FOSS-based work can be extremely satisfying.

--
Bruce Byfield 604-421-7177
http://members.axion.net/~bbyfield

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References:
"community" or "user" generated documentation: From: Victoria M. Sharpe

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