Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Project Gutenberg and the origin of open content

Glyn Moody, Gutenberg 2.0: the birth of open content,, March 29, 2006. Excerpt:
A previous feature examined the parallels between open source and open access, which strives for the free online availability of the academic knowledge distilled into research papers. Although it has some particular characteristics of its own, open access can be considered part of a wider move to gain free online access to general digital content.  The roots of this open content movement, as it came to be called, go back to before the Internet existed, and when even computers were relatively rare beasts. In 1971, the year Richard Stallman joined the MIT AI Lab, Michael Hart was given an operator's account on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. Since he estimated this computer time had a nominal worth of $100 million, he felt he had an obligation to repay this generosity by using it to create something of comparable and lasting value. His solution was to type in the US Declaration of Independence, roughly 5K of ASCII, and to attempt to send it to everyone on ARPANET (fortunately, this trailblazing attempt at spam failed). His insight was that once turned from analogue to digital form, a book could be reproduced endlessly for almost zero additional cost - what Hart termed "Replicator Technology". By converting printed texts into etexts, he was able to create something whose potential aggregate value far exceeded even the heady figure he put on the computing time he used to generate it. The Replicator idea is similar to one of the key defining characteristics of free software: that it can be copied endlessly, at almost no marginal cost. Hart's motivation for this move - the creation of a huge permanent store of human knowledge - is very different from Stallman's reason for starting the GNU project, which is powered by his commitment to spreading freedom. But on the Project Gutenberg site, there is a discussion about the ambiguity of the word "free" that could come straight from Stallman: "The word free in the English language does not distinguish between free of charge and freedom. .... Fortunately almost all Project Gutenberg ebooks are free of charge and free as in freedom." There are other interesting parallels between the two men....