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February 16, 2010
Reclusive Mathematician to Crowdsourcers: Hold On There
Steven Landsburg's blog "The Big Questions" tells the interesting story of the aborted attempt to crowdsource the work of Alexandre Grothendieck. The work in question is a series of very dense volumes of fundamental, game-changing publications in mathematics.
Grothendieck's work was originally published in 20 now out-of-print volumes from Springer-Verlag. Unfortunately, the demand for these works in the specialist mathematical community far exceeds the size of the supply of original printed volumes that remain. No problem, this is the Net age, and indeed a Dutch mathematics professor, Bas Edixhoven, had organized a crowdsourced effort to retype the works with proper mathematical symbols, typo corrections and so on.
All of which came to a screeching halt on receipt of a letter from Grothendieck himself that, while not threatening legal action, insisted that all such efforts cease. Grothendieck appears to hold the copyrights but his objections are not commercial. According to Landsburg (who admits he is also guessing) it has to do with the old man's unhappiness with how his works have been used since their publication.
I'm reminded of the story from January of last year, in which a copyright holder chose to withdraw works from circulation despite the likely benefits that would have resulted from their use. It's a reminder that not everyone sees things the same way, and not everyone cares about getting the widest possible distribution for what they've done.
ETA: the comments on the blog post contain several links with more information and a rough translation of the letter, if you're interested in more details.
(Full disclosure: Landsburg and I are casual friends and occasional verbal sparring partners. Neither of us makes any money from our blogs, though of course he makes money if you buy his book of the same name.)
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