Chapter 1. Introduction

Table of Contents
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
What is Collaborative Writing?
Why is Collaboration Important?
The Idea of Control / The Control of Ideas
Collaborative Literary Creation and Control

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

By the mid-1980's Webster's 1913 edition of their Revised Unabridged Dictionary was nearly forgotten. Its publishers, now Merriam-Webster, Inc., publish small revisions of the dictionary each year (changes are made to only about 50 words) and larger revisions every decade. 1913 had served its time and been pushed aside. The people I spoke to at Merriam-Webster knew nothing about 1913 and assured me that little, if anything, from 1913 remained in their current Collegiate dictionary. They described how the relationship between 1913 and the modern Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionaries, while still somewhat unclear, was tenuous at best.

In the first seventy-five years of its life, Webster's 1913 edition was revised several times and then abandoned according to company policy. Copies that escaped the pulping machines survived to gather dust in libraries and on bookshelves. Merriam-Webster retained full control over the text and, if they followed their normal patten of revision, did absolutely nothing with it after a decade. Barred from action by Merriam-Webster's exclusive rights to the text under copyright, neither did anybody else.

As Webster's 1913's quietly celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday in 1988, few noticed that it had finally caught up with the numerous extensions, revisions and rewrites of the United States Copyright Act that the text had seen in its lifetime. As Merriam-Webster's copyright expired, the 1913 version of their Unabridged Dictionary passed into the public domain and became common property. To dictionary manufacturers with their own up-to-date dictionaries, the availability of Webster's 1913's thousands of now antiquated definitions to the public domain meant little.

By 1996, the Internet had become a fixture of the lives of millions around the world. In this year, Project Gutenberg, a project digitizing and distributing public domain texts, released an electronic version of Webster's 1913. As the only large digital dictionary in the public domain, Webster's 1913 was quickly adopted by those unwilling or unable to purchase commercial dictionaries. The dictionary, ignored over generations, was the center of attention once again.

Since then, the dictionary has taken up numerous electronic formats to facilitate different methods of searching and browsing. It has been integrated into text editors, web sites, and word processors. Consequently, 1913 is cited increasingly often—last year in a petition to the United States Supreme Court ([Morrill2002]). The digital versions have been used as a seed for, or an addition to, various online knowledge bases including WordNet, Wikitionary, Wikipedia, Everything2 and others.

More strikingly, Webster's 1913 has grown. With knowledge of the dictionary's dated quality, several collaborative projects have sprung up to augment, fix, or build on the text of dictionary. Foremost among these is the GNU Collaborative International Dictionary of English (GCIDE) which, through an entirely volunteer-based collaborative effort, has revised, updated and added to the dictionary to create one of the most quickly growing dictionary projects in existence.

Webster's 1913's new life as GCIDE is a story about the power and effectiveness of collaboration. With its amazing resurrection, it is also a story about the effect of control on the life of a text. The new life breathed into Webster's 1913 can be tied to the elimination of the centralized way that the dictionary had been controlled. It can be tied to the elimination of Merriam-Webster's legal ability to control the use of the text. It can be tied to a series of technological shifts including the explosion of the Internet and collaborative authoring tools that made distribution and collaborative manipulation of the dictionary possible in new and different ways. In shifting away from highly centralized and individualized systems of control, meaningful collaborative work on the dictionary became possible. Through its history of abandonment and revitalization, 1913 acts as a powerful example of the way that highly individualized control limits the growth of a text—and of the great things that can happen when control is relinquished.