RIP Michael Hart, Founder of Project Gutenberg

by Krishna on September 21, 2011

I learned this only a few days after. Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, the online repository of copyright-free books, passed away earlier this month.

Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart’s life’s work, spanning over 40 years.

Project Gutenberg is one of the oldest websites around. It was one of my favorite sites when I first got on the Internet back in the late 1990s. The primary appeal that the site held for me was that book content was available as plain text, a big factor in those days of low bandwidth. Also that everything was books available in the public domain, so no worries about violating some copyright law.

Of course, we have many more choices these day. Even Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer collections of public domain books to be read on their e‑reader devices. But there is still nothing to beat Project Gutenberg. Just like Wikipedia, but a lot more inclusive. I haven’t heard of any books removed from PG. There are also many projects based on the books provided by Project Gutenberg.

The book inventory of Project Gutenberg illustrates the sordid history of changes in copyright law in the United States. See the following chart:

Creative Commons

From just 14 years (with additional 14 years renewal) at the time of the formation of the United States, copyright is now 95/120 years or life of the author plus 70 years. How this promotes the “Progress of Science and useful Arts” as per the US Constitution is something that fails me. If anything, it allows an author to milk a successful creative work for decades without doing anything else. And also allow his generation (and the next generation after that) to live on that creative work. For example, music recordings that were created before you and I were born are now copyrighted until 2067, when most of us will be dead.

Copyright law, patent law and other aspects of intellectual property rights are far from the radar of the common man. But they play a significant role in the extraction of rents from the economy and create distorting influences (patent wars, the Netflix saga). Michael Hart’s project diligently following copyright law could have been much more extensive and vastly more useful to people across the globe if vested interests had not got together to create perpetual copyright. Think about that.

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