Xanadu - more than just electronic publishing and document storage

by Craig Sanders

Originally published in Desktop Magazine August 1994.  Reproduced with

We have all heard the term "electronic publishing" countless times over the last few years, but it seems to be one of those marketing buzz-words, ill-defined and basically meaningless.

So what IS electronic publishing?

The Xanadu Project think that they have the answer to that question. If anyone does, they do - after all Xanadu's visionary founder, Ted Nelson, is the inventor of many revolutionary concepts in the fields of text processing and electronic publishing, including hypertext and hypermedia, and has been working and researching in the field for over 30 years.

Nelson has published two classic works on this field, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Microsoft Press), and Literary Machines (available direct from Xanadu Australia)

Nelson's research has resulted in what may be the world's most advanced system for electronic publishing, supporting hypertextual links between documents, copyright protection and royalty calculation, live documents and more.

One of the most important concepts related to electronic publishing is the idea that the distinction between the 'reader' and the 'author' is both artificial and unnecessary. In the world of electronic publishing, everyone is both a consumer and a producer of information, and can publish either entirely original works, or works based on (via hypertext links) other works.

Another important idea is that no document is isolated - all can and will be referenced, used, manipulated, summarised, compiled, and linked to/from by other documents in the global document database (or "Docuverse" as Xanadu likes to call it).

Even though any document may be referenced by any other document, copyright status is still preserved by the system. Electronic publication within the Xanadu system includes an implicit granting of the right to reference (or re-publish) within the Xanadu system. When a hard copy is made of the document, then normal copyright applies.

This is not as strange as it initially sounds, because it is actually to the author's advantage to be referenced as many times as possible. Royalties in the Xanadu system are calculated every time the document is accessed. Instead of selling a hardcopy book for $24.95 RRP, the author may charge a fraction of a cent for each access of the work. The more often it is accessed, the more the author gets paid.

Within any document, the author has complete control over royalties and how they are calculated. Different chapters, for example, may be charged at different rates; a table of figures may be cheaper than the author's analysis of those figures; the entire document, or portions of it, may be entirely free of charge.

An interesting example would be that of a musical score, published complete with lyrics on a Xanadu system by Fred Smith. At some point in the future, Joe Bloggs decides to write his own lyrics for Fred's music, and also publishes the result on Xanadu, releasing his lyrics plus a hypertext link to Fred's original music. These musical documents may be textual, graphical, digitised sound files, or even all three.

One major advantage of this is that Fred's copyright is respected, and any royalty payments are calculated automatically whenever someone accesses Joe's version of the song. The hypertext link to the original music may also be followed, allowing the viewer to access the document in it's original form.

Another advantage, due to Xanadu's "bi-followable links" (or bi-directional links), is that anyone who accesses Fred's original music will also have the option of following the link to Joe's version.

The same linkage benefits apply even when two different versions of a document are authored by the same person - thus allowing a historical record of the development of any particular document. If an author prefers not to do this, then they can "unpublish" any document, or version of a document.

The technology behind the Xanadu Project will become increasingly necessary in the publishing industry over the next few years - it already has answers to the problems we will face as our world "goes online".

Xanadu Australia
P.O. Box 409 Canterbury VIC 3126
Phone: +61 3 888-8845
email: avatar@xanadu.com.au (Andrew Pam)