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Michael S. Hart (1947-2011): The founder of Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg founder dies at 64

Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. Image credit: "Marcello"/Gutenberg.org (Creative Commons)

Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. Image credit: "Marcello"/Gutenberg.org (Creative Commons)

Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg passed away on 6 September. Hart, born in 1947, started Project Gutenberg in 1971 with the digitisation of the US Declaration of Independence, which Hart made available to other computer users at the University of Illinois.

Project Gutenberg was founded to distribute copyright-free eBooks free of charge. Currently, it offers more than 36,000 eBooks for download in variety of formats. Tens of thousands more eBooks are available through the project's network of national affiliates and other partners (works sometimes lapsing into public domain at different times in different jurisdictions).

Project Gutenberg's mission statement explains: "The mission of Project Gutenberg is simple: To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.

"This mission is, as much as possible, to encourage all those who are interested in making eBooks and helping to give them away...

"Project Gutenberg is powered by ideas, ideals, and by idealism."

The project is named after Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th century inventor of the printing press, which made possible a revolution in book creation and distribution.

In terms of potential to revolutionise human communication and the dissemination of ideas, the internet represents a shift at least as large as Gutenberg's press, so it is fitting that the project that takes him as its namesake was one of the first major efforts to take advantage of the 'network of networks' to freely disseminate knowledge.

One of the works available from Project Gutenberg is Hart's own A Brief History of the Internet, published in 1995. That book, in its own idiosyncratic style, laid out some of Hart's ideas about the potential of the interconnectedness and communication made possible by the internet:

For the first time in the entire history of the Earth, we have the ability for EVERYONE to get copies of EVERYTHING as long as it can be digitized and communicated to all of the people on the Earth, via computers [and the devices a person might need to make a PHYSICAL, rather than VIRTUAL copy of whatever it might be. . .

Think about what you have just read for a moment, please, EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE. . .

Project Gutenberg is in many ways one of the internet pioneers of cultural freedom. These days it does not always seem such a radical idea that at least some freedom from the 'normal' constraints of the profit imperative may be able produce works that would be unlikely to be created, or accessible, otherwise.

Hence open source is no longer considered solely the domain of radicals but also that of big business. While there are obvious differences, Project Gutenberg is cut from similar, if not the same, cloth to other projects that strive for intellectual and cultural freedom; the GNU project and Creative Commons, for example.

Like many, I grew up when internet access was not nearly as common as it is now, and in the mid '90s coming across Project Gutenberg was something of a revelation — all this content, available to anybody (with an internet connection) for free!

It is one of those projects, like Wikipedia, that is almost inconceivable without the existence of a network like the internet (though obviously Project Gutenberg preceded the internet proper). The very fact of its existence also represents a challenge to some of the enduring limitations on intellectual freedom imposed by copyright (and in other areas, such as software development, by patents).

In Hart's book he argued:

Since the founding of the United States when copyrights or patents were proposed by Thomas Jefferson for 17 years the period was lengthened to 28 years, plus another 28 years— and most recently to 75 years for corporate copyrights and "life plus 50 years" for individual copyrights.

That means that "Zen and the Art of the Internet," written by a 20 year old, who will be expected to live for another 55 years or so, will still be under copyright sentencing a century from now, and will be totally out of date and will be totally useless other than as a historical footnote…

Copyright and patents are what allow people NOT to compete in the marketplace, as least for the first decade or two a new item is in the marketplace. . .only now copyrights are being extended to include the entire lifetime, not only of the copyright holder, but of the audience as well.

Something is wrong.

Hart's work on Project Gutenberg can be seen an attempt do 'something right': Within the constraints imposed by national laws — the ludicrous Mickey Mouse Protection Act, for example — Project Gutenberg endures and continues its work of freely disseminating knowledge and challenging illiteracy.

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