Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, March 10, 2006

Richard Poynder interview with Michael Hart

Richard Poynder has posted his interview with Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. This is the first installment of The Basement Interviews, Poynder's blog-based OA book of interviews with leaders of many related openness initiatives. Excerpt:
Immediately seeing the potential of the network as a revolutionary new medium for distributing information, Hart was soon typing in entire books, including the Bible, all of Shakespeare, and Alice in Wonderland. Thus was born Project Gutenberg a project that rapidly turned into an ambitious scheme to make electronic copies of 10,000 out-of-copyright books freely available on the Internet. Hart's mission: "to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy." In retrospect Project Gutenberg was both prescient and revolutionary. In effect, Hart had become the first "information provider" twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and at a time when there were, says Hart, just 100 people on the network....Since then the number of volunteers has grown from tens, to hundreds, to thousands, and today Project Gutenberg offers over 17,000 e-texts, all of which can be freely downloaded in a wide variety of formats. In addition, there are now national Project Gutenbergs in Australia, Germany, Portugal, Canada and the Philippines, and plans are under way to create local projects in Africa, Asia, and other regions too. New obstacles were to arise however: while copyright had always posed a challenge for Hart, the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extending US copyright by a further 20 years removed one million potential eBooks from the public domain in one fell swoop. With copyright now averaging 95.5 years, and creators no longer needing to register their copyright, Hart began to fear that the public domain could disappear all together, undermining the raison d'être of what by then had become his life's mission....For Hart the stakes are high, since he views Project Gutenberg as more than just the first and largest distributor of public domain eBooks. In addition, he argues, it is a primitive example of a "replicator" (a reference to a Star Trek machine envisaged as being capable of copying any inanimate matter by rearranging subatomic particles), and so therefore also a "lever to the Neo-Industrial Revolution."

RP:...How much is being lost to the public domain as a result of the Sonny Bono Act?

MH: The answer is about $10 trillion. This is based on a calculation of just one cent per book per lifetime, and assumes only about 15% of the world are readers, and only one million books are being lost to the public domain....

RP:...I'm going to trust your math! But what you are talking about, surely, is a product of an information explosion, not of any changes to the law?

MH: Right. But what we face is a situation in which the rise in the percentage of copyrighted information due to growth is being compounded by the constant extension of copyright terms. Put these two elements together and you end up with a situation in which well over 90% of all copyrights ever granted are still in force. In other words, if you combine the information explosion with the fact that the average copyright term has risen from about 15 years to around 95 years then the public domain which was about 50% of everything every written a century ago will fall to around 0.00001% or less just a century into the future....

RP: What's the end game?

MH: The future mission is to create 10,000,000 eBooks and translate them into 100 different languages.

RP: Effectively, you plan to make every book in the public domain available as an e-text?

MH: Right. Once Project Gutenberg has a million items to offer, it should be an easier task to add the remaining 9 million items that it is estimated will become available in the public domain between 2010 and 2020. Then in its final stages Project Gutenberg will focus on collecting materials from all 100 languages, and disseminating them in other languages. So the eventual aim is to be able to offer 10 million eBooks in 100 languages to as many readers as possible.