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What Does Open Source Shakespeare Mean?

The proliferation of digital editions of Shakespeare's works is no doubt a great thing. Just 10 years ago when this site started, it was difficult to find them—primarily because there were really only two or three editions in the public domain. Now there is a larger selection (including the editions used on this site) and it's enabling students, teachers, scholars, theatre professionals, computer programmers and even the average fan to rework the bard in new ways.

At, we believe strongly in the philosophy of open source. When intellectual property is released to the world using an open source license, it fosters creativity and innovation in building upon those ideas, create new works, and make them better. When open source is supported, everyone benefits. That combined with creating a high quality digital edition was a driving principal in 2005 when the first version of our editions was created. It had to be free because existing editions (Arden, Riverside, Folger, etc.) were all proprietary.

What's the difference between "free" and "free"? This is a point of confusion for most people. Often the word "free" is used when promoting open source material. But free can mean several things and it's very important to distinguish the difference:

  1. "Free of charge" means you don't have to pay for it. You can download it with no cost to you at all.
  2. "Freedom to use" means you can do whatever you want with it—adapt it, give it away, sell it, etc.

Just because you have #1 doesn't automatically mean you have #2 (and vice-versa). The definition of "open source" is defined by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and the Freedom Software Foundation (FSF). In short, the definition of open source doesn't mean the source code is freely available to download. This is a common misconception. Open source defines the conditions of usage of that source code. If that usage is restricted (especially commercially), it's not open source. 

There are a few "free" editions of Shakespeare's works available on the Internet. Here are the three most popular:

  • The Globe Edition was published in 1866 and based on Cambridge texts from the same decade. While groundbreaking in its time, Shakespeare scholarship has evolved leaps and bounds in the last 150 years so now this edition is sorely outdated with many errors.
  • The Moby Edition (, created by The Moby Project, is essentially a minor deriviative of the Globe Edition with even more errors. It was available online until the project was later absorbed into Project Gutenberg.
  • The Oxford Shakespeare ( was published in 1914 by W. J. Craig for Oxford University Press. It is a somewhat improved edition over the Globe and Moby editions, but definitely shows its age at 100 years old.

These editions are in the public domain and are still freely available. Technically, they are not "open source" by definition, but since they are "free of charge" and "free to use", they are used all over the world in spite of their age and textual errors. They are not maintained in any way and are essentially "snapshots" of the time in which they were written 100-150 years ago.

To further illustrate the point, there likewise are other sources which claim to have either "free" and/or "open source" editions available:

  • MIT ( This site uses the public domain Moby Edition. Ironically, MIT is the creator the popular MIT license for many kinds of open source software, but these texts are not released under it.

  • Folger Digital Texts ( The well-respected Folger Shakespeare Library launched their digital texts in December 2012 under the CC-ANC 3.0 license. Their site says:

    "The full source code of the texts may be downloaded by researchers and developers at no cost for noncommercial use."

    According to the definition of open source, the texts should be unencumbered to use in any project, commercial or not. No Creative Commons licenses currently qualify as open source since they come with restrictions that go against the spirit of it. So while the texts are being called "free", they are "free of charge", not free to use as you wish.

  • Open Source Shakespeare ( This site uses the public domain Globe Edition. The license page doesn't state any particular open source license, but states:

    "You may download the OSS code and/or the database and use them in your personal, non-commercial projects without charge, as long as you give us credit and provide a link somewhere to Commercial use is not authorized without the permission from George Mason University."

    According to the definition of open source, users should be able to use the content in any project, for commericial use or not. In open source, no special permission is needed because it is, by default, open. So like the Folger Digital Texts, Open Source Shakespeare is "free of charge", not "free to use". Therefore, neither the site software nor the content are actually open source as the name of the website implies.

These are just three examples of digital editions in use by many people who are unfamiliar they might be breaking the law because the terms are unclear. What is a "non-commerical project"? Isn't a theatrical performance where I charge an admission fee considered a commerical project? There are many questions like these when an open source license isn't used. I question whether George Mason University or The Folger is going to send the "Shakespeare Police" after anyone, but are you sure? In some cases, you could be violating their copyright and not even know it.

The same issues also apply when it comes to the First Folio. Libraries usually claim ownership over their scans of the book and forbid any copying or distribution—for scanned copies of a book almost 400 years old! Obviously, the book content itself is in the public domain, but the scanned images of it are kept proprietary and copyrighted by the library or university. It's a shameful practice they should immediately halt (especially publicly funded ones).

In part because of this, in 2010 we set out to create an open source edition of the First Folio. It took us almost two years and we completed the project in 2012. We found that Jon Bosak created a public domain version of the First Folio in XML in 1998 ( under the auspices of the Moby Project. It was a great FF project for its time, but very rudimentary and more of an exercise in technology than achieving a quality edition in XML. So we had to create our editions from scratch. 

A few months after we released the First Folio in XML, the Bodleian First Folio project at Oxford University ( started a First Folio digitalization project, but it was specific to that edition and released under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0) so it doesn't qualify as open source. It doesn't contain the original spelling and a few other things like our First Folio edition, but it is available on GitHub (

We continue to publicly maintain our editions on GitHub and encourage feedback and contributions. We are proud to have created the first truly open source editions of Shakespeare's plays and the First Folio with an emphasis on quality. To us, the term "open source" isn't just a buzzword to use to attract people looking for free stuff. It's a different way of looking at copyright with the goal of fostering innovation and free thinking. We would love for others to contribute to that effort in any way they can. 


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