Project Gutenberg's anabasis

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Business Correspondent  |  Jan. 8, 2004 at 2:50 PM
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Last October, Project Gutenberg -- the Web's first and largest online library of free electronic books -- released a long-awaited DVD containing close to 10,000 of its titles. Since then, another 1000 texts were added to its burgeoning archives. The Project has also spawned numerous other Web sites. Some of them, such as Blackmask, offer free downloads and sell their own DVD with mostly Project Gutenberg eBooks in multiple formats. Others provide free browsers and library applications specific to PG's content.

The man behind the Project -- and, to many, the man who was the inventor of the proto eBook in 1971 -- is Michael Hart.

Always amenable to preaching the gospel of free content and its benefits, he spoke with United Press International about Project Gutenberg's recent progress. Hart was joined by Greg Newby, chief executive officer of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.

Following is part II of Hart and Newby's interview with UPI.


Q. How would you suggest to balance the need to protect the intellectual property rights of authors and the need to disseminate knowledge?

-- Michael: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in cahoots with commercial interests, leave no quarter for anyone, and seem to want permanent copyright.

How do you achieve balance with someone who wants it all?

Originally, copyright came about because the Stationers' Guild wanted to entrench their monopoly on the written word after it was shattered by the Gutenberg Press. Similarly, in the United States, every copyright extension has had the same purpose, to destroy the effectiveness of a new publishing technology.

The 1909 Copyright Act destroyed the reprint houses made possible by the new steam and electric presses. The 1976 Copyright Act was enacted merely to stifle the effect of the Xerox machine. The 1998 Copyright Act was a response to the effects of the Internet. When it is difficult to make copies, it is legal because only the rich can do it. As soon as it becomes easy enough for the masses to have copies it is made illegal!

--Greg: Publishers and media houses are adept at appropriating the intellectual property rights of authors for their own profits. They are insensitive to the social contract of copyright that should result in there lease of items to the public domain after a reasonable period. Life of the author + 70 years is not a reasonable period, neither is 95 or 120 years after the creation of the copyrighted work.

Only a fraction of the items currently under copyright are actually available, from anyone at any price. The only benefit accrues to media producers, who restrict the quantity of available prior materials so that their new material is more likely to be purchased.

Q. The commercial eBook industry is going through a bloodbath. Cracked versions of the newest books are available online. Do you believe that eBooks, by nature, should be free - or is there a place for commercial digital content?

-- Greg: I favor the development of a commercial eBook industry. Project Gutenberg should be seen as a benefit to that industry, not an adversary. Similarly, I see commercial eBooks as being able to benefit Project Gutenberg, simply by getting more people to read eBooks.

The industry is a victim of its own incompetence. They did not suffer from a lack of publicity or advertising, but from a lack of usability, standard formats, and sufficient content.

They also adopted a crippling cost model that artificially keeps the price of a new hardcover at $20 or so, and a crippling industry model that necessitates enormous overhead to get their ever-decreasing catalog of items, printed on dead trees, delivered to shopping malls.

Fear of illicit copying (music and video) seems to dominate their thinking. At the same time, the leading organizations (the Author's Guild, the MPAAand the RIAA) are seeking to reduce the realm of fair use. Had these organizations embraced fair use, and introduced reasonable products at reasonable prices, they would not have needed to worry so much about piracy.

The failure of the eBook is the failure of the industries behind it, not the failure of the idea or lack of a market. I think it will take new thinkers, and new companies, to garner success.

-- Michael: Most of the bloodbath I have seen was among the commercial hardware eBook industry, people who wanted to control the reading habits of their customers, who did not want them to read anything that was not paid for and delivered by same commercial interests. When upgrades turn into downgrades to WIPOut access to public domain eBooks that used to be accessible before -- that is a "Bad Thing."

The beauty, the purpose, of eBooks is to re-create the Gutenberg Press. Books whose replication and dissemination all over the world cost nothing, that require no deforestation, warehousing and shipping, that do not end upin the landfills of the world.

The purpose of eBooks is to create a library anyone can carry, weighing under one ounce per ten thousand volumes on standard writable DVDs, or one ounce per 25,000 books on double sided or double leveled DVDs. One kilo of these newer DVDs can hold 1,000,000 eBooks!

And I plan to have just such double sided DVDs to hand out for the holidays two years from now. . . .

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