First Monday

From PDF to MP3: Motivations for creating derivative works by John Hilton III

With increasing frequency, authors are licensing their works in such a way so as to permit others to create derivative works. In some cases, these derivatives extend the impact of a work by providing a translation into another language or modifying the file format to make it more accessible. The Internet is increasing the ability of individuals to create and distribute these derivatives. Seventeen creators of derivatives were surveyed on their motivations for doing so. They indicated that they were willing to create derivatives that extend the original content of a book because they want to help others access the work. Nearly all the people surveyed indicated they were glad they had created derivative works, often feeling like they were part of a community effort to share the work with others. These creators of derivatives believe that as awareness of open licenses increases, others will be encouraged to create derivative works.


Results and discussion




On 25 March 2004, Lawrence Lessig released his book Free Culture (New York: Penguin Press) with a Creative Commons license that allowed people to access the digital PDF version on the Internet for free. The license also allowed people to legally make derivatives of the work (– The next day the Reverend A.K.M. Adam made a blog posting inviting others to join him in creating a free audio version of Free Culture (Adam, 2004). Within two more days, “most of the book was available as MP3 downloads.” [1]

In a world in which copyright often restricts any ability to create derivatives, how was it possible that 72 hours after a book was released that a free audio version was available? In the case of Free Culture, it was a combination of legal permission, Internet technologies, and willing remixers that allowed the audio version to be created. In this study, I focus on what motivates individuals to create these kinds of derivative works. I first discuss the idea of derivatives in general and license provisions that allow them to be legally created.

In their most general sense, “derivative works are works that are based on or derived from a pre–existing work.” [2] Derivative works are extremely common in popular culture. For example many Walt Disney movies are derivative works of earlier fairy tales (e.g., Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty). West Side Story is a derivative of Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare in turn created many of his plays based on the earlier works of others (Lewis, et al., 2009). In some cases, derivative works create new interest and enthusiasm for the original work. Some claim that derivative works of the Star Trek series sparked new interest in the original (Litman, 2007).

Copyright regulations often prevent derivatives from being created. For example, in the United States authors have an “exclusive right to create derivative works and to control the creation of derivative works for as long as the original work retains copyright protection.” [3].

Some authors and publishers vigilantly protect their right to control derivative works. This often stems from a desire to protect characters or ideas that authors believe belong to them (Lewis, et al., 2009). Other authors and publishers ignore derivative works, neither encouraging nor discouraging them (Lewis, et al., 2009; Tushnet, 1997).

Still other authors actively encourage derivatives by deliberately giving up the right to control derivative works (Boyle, 2008; Lessig, 2008). One way this is frequently accomplished is through the use of Creative Commons licenses, which allow authors to retain some of the rights generally associated with copyright (such as the right to profit from the work) while giving up other rights (such as the control of derivative works) (Bissell, 2009; Creative Commons, 2009).

Some authors believe that by allowing derivative works to be created that they will extend the impact of their books. Boyle, a scholar who has released several publications through Creative Commons licenses, wrote about his motivations for doing so. He noted that:

“Scholars have a professional responsibility to make their works as widely available, without price barriers, as is possible. [In addition,] I reach new audiences that I couldn’t have imagined.” (Hilton and Wiley, in press)

There is some evidence that allowing derivatives can potentially extend the reach of a work. For example, Free Culture has been translated into seven different languages, audio versions are freely available, and it has been put into 16 different file formats [4]. All of these translations and format changes are available for others to download. Allowing others to create derivatives of Free Culture expanded its reach.

In essence there are two types of derivatives. In some cases, such as the Disney derivatives mentioned earlier, the derivatives are creative in nature, adding to the plot and the actions taken by the characters. These types of derivatives are often termed “fan fiction” (Karjala, 2006). Sequels or prequels that build off established characters also fit into this category.

A second type of derivative is that which is intended to extend the readership of the content of an original work. Language translations and audio versions of printed work (or vice versa) fall into this category. File format changes are another type of this derivative. For example, when a person takes a PDF version of a book and converts it to be readable on a Palm device, the resulting derivative may extend the readership of the book. The Internet provides increasing opportunities for people to share these derivative works with others (Tushnet, 1997; Lessig, 2008).

Much research has gone into the motivations of those who create fan fiction (Parrish, 2007; Jenkins, 1992). In this study, I focused on derivatives that extend the readership of an original work. Specifically, I investigated books using Creative Commons licenses that allow for derivative works. I surveyed individuals who have created these types of derivative works in order to find out answers to the following four questions:

  1. What motivates people to create derivatives?
  2. How much time do people spend creating derivatives?
  3. How do creators of derivatives feel about the products they make?
  4. What do creators of derivatives think can be done to encourage others to create derivative works?

The creation of derivative works has the potential to dramatically increase the access to content (Boyle, 2008; Lessig, 2008). Hence, it is important to understand the motivations of those who create derivatives. As we understand what motivates the creators of derivatives and learn more about the work they do, the possibility of increasing the number of derivative works, and therefore access to information, increases.




The first step in surveying those who had created derivatives of books was to find works that a) had been licensed in such as way as to permit derivatives, and b) had had derivatives actually made. This was accomplished by reviewing the work of authors I knew had published books with Creative Commons licenses (Hilton and Wiley, in press), as well as seeking additional authors who had licensed their books in this manner. In order to be eligible for this study books needed to be licensed to allow for derivatives and derivatives had been made. Although many authors licensed their books to allow for derivatives, not all works eventually generated derivatives. The authors and works included in this study are as follows::

The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler;
The Public Domain, by James Boyle;
Content, by Cory Doctorow;
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow;
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow;
Code, by Lawrence Lessig;
Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig; and,
The Future of the Internet, by Jonathan Zittrain.

Links to these authors and their works are found in Appendix A.

Once these books had been located, I attempted to contact those who had created derivative works from them. In some cases this was as simple as sending an e-mail message to the author who forwarded our survey request to those who had created derivatives. However, in many cases authors did not have contact information for those who had created derivatives. I would then used Google to locate authors by searching for their name along with the work they translated. For example, on Yochai Benkler’s Web site for The Wealth of Networks, one of the derivatives listed is an Arabic translation by Ferej Alowedi. However, there was no contact information for Alowedi listed on the site. Benkler remarked that he did not have it. I googled “Ferej Alowedi” and The Wealth of Networks, which led to Alowedi’s Web site. This site was in Arabic, so I used Google Translator to translate the site into English. This facilitated finding Alowedi’s contact information and his participation in the study.

In total 28 individuals were invited to participate in this study by taking a survey. The survey consisted of eight questions (see Appendix B for the survey questions used). Seventeen of these individuals took the survey.



Results and discussion

Motivations for creating derivatives

Based on the responses we received, there were two major motivations expressed for creating derivatives. Individuals wanted to (1) increase the ability for others to access the work; and, (2) remix the book in a way that would personally be more convenient.

The most common reason for derivatives was to increase the ability for others to access a given work. For example, Gregory Kearney converted Boyle’s The Public Domain into a DAISY digital talking book for the blind. Kearney’s motivation was simply “Books need to be accessible.” Similarly, an individual who translated a chapter of Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks into Portuguese expressed his motivations by remarking, “I wanted to give the book as … material for a class that I teach and most of the students did not speak English.” Jon Peck, who created a version of Doctorow’s Little Brother on Facebook, noted that “I saw the author’s list of available formats (on his Web page) and noticed that Facebook was not one of them. Since many people spend a lot of time on Facebook, I thought they might appreciate being able to access it directly from there.”

The second motivation for creating derivatives was to make it easier for the individual who created a given derivative to use the work. Roger Moore said, “I read on my Palm eReader” so he converted the text of Little Brother to fit this format. This second motivation was also sometimes related to the first. LuYu —who created HTML versions of Lessig’s Code and Free Culture as well as Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks — stated:

“I did this simply because I wanted to read books on my small screen devices … . These rendered books provided me with hours of entertainment and education on public transportation … . I have also gotten friends to use my rendered books, so they are happy to be able to read when they have a minute free as well.”

Similarly, Chris Meadows said of his eReader formatting of Doctorow’s Content, “I’m glad to know that those people who prefer eReader format will be able to read it in the format they prefer, thanks to me.”

Time spent creating derivatives

The average amount of time spent by participants in this study creating their derivatives was 19 hours; however, the amount of time varied widely. Buddy Brannan spent just five minutes using a software program to convert the text of Content into a Braille format. Several others who made file format changes reported similar amounts of time. Michael Scherer, who recorded an audio chapter of Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks reported spending six hours on the effort. Guillermo Ruiz Zapatero spent “about 20–30 hours” creating a Spanish translation of a chapter of The Wealth of Networks. Another remixer reported taking 60–80 hours to translate two chapters of this same book into Portuguese. In general, file format changes were much less time–intensive than were translations or the creation of audio versions.

Opinions of creators about derivatives

Fifteen out of 17 surveyed said they were glad they had created their derivative work; the other two expressed neutral feelings. The Reverend A.K.M. Adam was “thrilled” about his contribution to the audio version of Free Culture. Noa Resare later took these audio chapters and made them easier to access. Noa was glad that he created this derivative —of a derivative — noting that “I think that my small contribution helped some people, and I’m glad that I can offer my area of expertise.”

Andy Waschick, who created an e–Reader version of Content, said, “I enjoyed idea that I was participating in a community of common interest, and that I would get to interact with a writer who I admire.”

Ibrahim Cesar, who made modifications to a Portuguese version of Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom stated “I felt like I contributed in a work that I like. I felt like I participated in something big, really important.”

Sanders Claassen answered the question “Are you glad you created this work?” by remarking that

“Yes, I’m glad I made it. There have been quite some people, although not thousands, that have downloaded my version. The page from which it can be downloaded was visited more than 600 times since I uploaded it. I just checked it, and the page is still visited quite regularly: 13 times this last month.”

On encouraging others to create derivative works

Survey participants were asked if they had any ideas about how others could be encouraged to create derivative works. There were three common themes mentioned: (1) increasing awareness and use of open licenses; (2) giving credit to those who create derivatives; and, (3) increasing access to source content.

Several individuals remarked on the importance of Creative Commons, allowing the development of derivatives. Improbulus, who created a mobile e–book of Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet, remarked that

“Obviously the key issue is that people should be allowed to create derivative works in the first place, e.g., by licensing the works under a CC [Creative Commons] license that permits derivatives, and making it very clear that derivatives are allowed, as otherwise people who don’t want to get sued simply won’t create derivatives.”

Similarly, Buddy Brannan stated that:

“I really think the key here is to let people know what Creative Commons really means … . The freedom to make derivative works is already there in the license. People just need to know that they really can do something with a [Creative Commons] work that they think might be useful, interesting, or fun.”

Roger Moore said, “I doubt the majority of the people understand that you can do that with Creative Commons.”

A second theme emphasized was the importance of authors giving credit to the individuals creating derivative. For example, one interviewee noted that “People will only be enthusiastic about doing [a] derivative work if they have a clear understanding of … how it can benefit them. By benefit I mean … mostly intangible things such as reputation.” Similarly, Ibrahim Cesar said, “I think the key is interaction with the original creator and the ‘social gain’ you receive.” Firas Durri, who coverted the PDF version of Free Culture into a .txt format, remarked that “It was nice to get my file linked from the book’s official site, and it’s interesting to find the file turn up in my site’s logs as something that occasionally gets accessed by people. The fact that the book’s site is still up and linking to it five years later is especially encouraging.”

A third theme relating to how more derivative works could be encouraged centered on increasing access to source content. Improbulus said, “Of course to encourage others to create derivatives the work needs to be made available in a form (e.g., digital) that makes it easy for others to produce derivatives. If the Zittrain book had only been published on paper, even with a CC [Creative Commons] license I wouldn’t have had the time to create a mobile ebook from it by scanning pages.” Similarly, Sanders Claassen said that “Making the content (text, images, etc) more easily available” would encourage others to create derivatives.




Twenty years ago the idea of turning a PDF book into a series of .mp3 files would have seemed ludicrous — neither file format existed. But today such things not only are possible, they occur with increasing frequency, thus extending the potential reach of a given book. The Internet has dramatically altered many people’s ability to create and share derivative works. Access to digital information has dramatically increased, thanks in part to the increasing use of Creative Commons and other open licenses giving more individuals legal permission to create derivatives.

This study indicates that individuals are willing to create derivatives because they want to help others access a given work and they want to make it more convenient to access it personally. Some derivatives, such as changing file formats, can take little time to create. Other derivatives, such as language translations, can be extremely time–consuming. However, individuals are willing to voluntarily create both types of derivatives. Nearly all those surveyed indicated they were glad that they had created derivative works, feeling like they were part of a community effort to share a given work with others. These creators of derivatives believe that as the awareness of open licenses increases others will be encouraged to create derivative works.

The number of derivative works being created seems likely to increase. As more authors license their works in such a way as to permit derivatives, and as more individuals learn that they are legally permitted to create derivatives, one important result may be derivatives that increase the ability of many to interact with an original work. End of article


About the author

John Hilton III is a doctoral candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. He is interested in studying open access issues, particularly how open access to digital versions of books affects the impact and sales of books. He can be reached via his Web site at



1. ITConversations, 2004. “Behind the Mic” (29 March), at, accessed 1 June 2009.

2. Gasser and Ernst, 2006, p. 8.

3. Ibid.

4. Free Culture, 2004. “Free Culture Web site, at, accessed 1 June 2009.



A. Adam, 2004. “Let’s start something,” at, accessed 1 June 2009.

A. Bissell, 2009. “Permission granted: Open licensing for educational resources,” Open Learning, volume 24, number 1, pp. 97–106.

J. Boyle, 2008. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Creative Commons, 2009. “Creative Commons licenses,” at–the–licenses, accessed 27 February 2009.

U. Gasser and S. Ernst, 2006. From Shakespeare to DJ Danger Mouse: A quick look at copyright and user creativity in the digital age. Cambridge, Mass.: Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, at, accessed 21 August 2009.

J. Hilton and D. Wiley, in press. “Free: Why authors are giving books away on the Internet,” Tech Trends.

H. Jenkins, 1992. “‘Strangers no more, we sing’: Filking and the social construction of the science fiction fan community,” In: L. Lewis (editor). The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and popular Media. New York: Routledge, pp. 208–236.

D. Karjala, 2006. “Harry Potter, Tanya Grotter, and the copyright derivative work,” Arizona State Law Journal, volume 38, number 1, pp. 17–40.

L. Lewis, R. Black, and B. Tomlinson, 2009. “Let everyone play: An educational perspective on why fan fiction is, or should be, legal,” International Journal of Learning and Media, volume 1, number 1, pp. 67–81, and at, accessed 21 August 2009.

L. Lessig, 2008. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin Press.

J. Litman, 2007. “Creative reading,” Law and Contemporary Problems, volume 70, number 2, pp. 175–183.

J. Parrish, 2007. “Inventing a universe: Reading and writing Internet fan fiction,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, at–08072007–170133/unrestricted/Parrish2007.pdf, accessed 21 August 2009.

R. Tushnet, 1996. “Legal fictions: Copyright, fan fiction, and a new common law,” Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal, volume 17, number 3, pp. 651–686, and at, accessed 21 August 2009.


Appendix A: Books and derivatives mentioned in this study

  1. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006).
    a. Main book site and derivatives page at
  2. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, by James Boyle (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at
  3. Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future, by Cory Doctorow (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at
  4. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow (New York: Tor, 2003).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at
  5. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (New York: Tor Teen, 2008).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at
  6. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Lawrence Lessig (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at
  7. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
    a. Main book site at–
    b. Derivatives page at–
  8. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008).
    a. Main book site at
    b. Derivatives page at


Appendix B: Survey for those who created derivative works

  1. What was the title of the book from which you made a derivative?

  2. What kind of derivative work did you make?

  3. Whose idea was it for you to create this derivative?

  4. What motivated you to create this derivative?

  5. How much time did it take you to create this derivative?

  6. Are you glad you created this work? Why or why not?

  7. Do you have any ideas about what could be done to encourage others to create derivative works?

  8. If we quote from this survey in a research report would you like to be identified by name? If so, please write down the name by which you would like to be identified.


Editorial history

Paper received 2 June 2009; revised 17 August 2009; accepted 20 August 2009.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

From PDF to MP3: Motivations for creating derivative works
by John Hilton III.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 9 - 7 September 2009