If I want something I have written release as open source, for instance a novel, is that possible? A novel does not have a source, the work itself is all that is needed to recreate the work. In cases of software I need the source code to create a changed version of the software, but in case of a novel all I need is the novel itself? So does the written text works as it's own source? Or are written text impossible to open source?

3 Answers 3


Novels, unlike software, don't have the large transformation between source code and binary that is usually the case with software. You can study and "tinker" with novels, but you cannot do the same (without great difficulty) with software without source code. Source code is important for software since it is a prerequisite for modification and sharing derivations. Therefore terms like "source code" are mostly irrelevant for novels, or things like visual art and documentation.

It is for this reason that, although you can apply software licenses to them, there are much better options. This is a big reason why the Creative Commons licenses were created; they, unlike software licenses, contain no mention of "source code" and are designed for creative works in general. GFDL may also be a suitable free license for such works.

When referring to such licenses, it may be less appropriate to refer to them as "free software" or "open source". Instead, people usually refer to these as "free culture". Even though there is no source code, the goals and ethoses have large overlaps, and focus on user freedoms such as the freedom to use for any purpose, the freedom to redistribute, and the freedom to share your modifications. If you compare this to FSF's definition of free software, this is almost the same with the exception of freedom 1 which is inapplicable. Those licenses that do not grant these freedoms are "not free culture licenses", or just "non-free" for short. For example, CC-BY-NC is "not approved for free cultural works" because it restricts commercial use.

  • 1
    Isn’t "free culture" the movement? I’d say free/libre content is the more common term.
    – unor
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 11:28

Novels and other written works do have source code: it's the "preferred form for modification", so basically the files you need if you want to edit the "work", whatever it is. If you write your novel in LibreOffice, it's the .odt file, plus any external files you may need (images, diagrams etc.). If you write it in LaTeX, it's the .tex file, plus any external files required. Don't forget any files you may use to prepare the final output (the cover, etc.). For images, ideally you'd keep the .xcf files for example if you're using the Gimp, as well as the PNGs or JPEGs you use in the document.

If you work directly on paper (handwriting or using a typewriter or whatever), then the preferred form for modification is the manuscript because that's all there is. You can still use a free / open source license on the text though; it's just that the effort required is greater... (This is pretty much the same reasoning as allowing JPEGs of photos as the preferred form for modification, rather than everything that was photographed!)

So yes, you can open source written text.

  • If you write on a typewriter it's ...
    – Mnementh
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 8:58
  • Good point, I think that's still coverable by open licenses (albeit in a much less practical fashion). Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 9:08
  • This is true, but for anyone wanting to make substantial changes to a novel not having the original 'source' is unlikely to be a significant barrier - it's generally relatively easy to recreate that from the published ebook. It's not even very hard to recreate from a paper book by either copy-typing or OCR. Copyright law and conventions around not copying without permission are likely to be much more relevant.
    – bdsl
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 12:52
  • @bdsl the question here is about releasing a novel as open source, so licensing and copyright aren’t going to be an issue. And yes, recreating some form of source from a written text isn’t exceedingly difficult; that’s effectively a variation on my second paragraph. Recreating a source form which produces exactly the same output as the original is another matter, but it’s typically not required... Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 13:26

You can, and indeed it has been done. You can write the novel in Markdown or LaTeX and upload it to GitHub. Why not? You will have to choose a Creative Commons license, which are not included by default when you create a GitHub repo, but that's all.

  • 1
    Two things: CC licenses aren't actually open source (though they have nearly equivalent goals), and you don't have to choose a CC license when you upload on a GitHub repo - you can even choose something like MIT for all you want. It's been done - images have been placed under the Apache license too.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 19:00
  • 2
    @Zizouz212 Some CC licenses are absolutely open source. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 23:17

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