by Sandra Wills
Free as in, well, free. At least, that’s what the folks at Project Gutenberg believe. They work hard to make as many literary (in a very broad sense of the term) works as possible available in a variety of formats, languages, and media to as many people as possible. They are guided by similar principles that all open source enthusiasts share, that power and information should be available to everyone, not just the elite.
Project Gutenberg grew almost organically with the start of the Internet, starting on July 4, 1971, with the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
“Yes, Richard Stallman and I both started our open source efforts pretty much at the same moment, the moment the Internet went transcontinental,” Michael Hart, Founder of Project Gutenberg, said. “I wanted to put something online that would stay there forever, and I was somewhat disappointed that the Internet founders hadn’t put something the nature of ‘What hath God wrought’ or ‘One small step’ out as a symbolism, so I did my best to come up with something that would do the job.”
The Project Gutenberg License focuses mainly on items in the public domain, ensuring that people don’t make changes to a Project Gutenberg book and then redistribute it with the changes still in their name—something that could create various issues for Project Gutenberg and readers.
The license serves, essentially, as a trademark license detailing the circumstances in which you can use the Project Gutenberg name. “In the case of a Project Gutenberg public domain item, if you remove the Project Gutenberg name plus the header, footer, and license, what you get is an eBook that is completely in the public domain,” Dr. Greg Newby, CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation (a role he volunteered for), explained.
They give away CDs and DVDs frequently, something they’ve done for many years, and each contain thousands of their eBooks (some DVDs up to 10,000 titles). “Some people have managed to get nearly 30,000 eBooks on a single DVD! [We're talking a plain DVD, single-sided, single-level, 4.3 gigabytes.] This is about the same number of books as in the average US public library,” Hart noted.
“The whole point of Project Gutenberg is to make as many literary items (very broadly considered) as possible freely available to as many people as possible, in as many formats, languages, and media as possible.” Newby added.
But working around costs isn’t the biggest challenge–copyright is. In the time since Project Gutenberg began, U.S. copyright laws have been extended in such ways as to eliminate millions of books, movies, songs, photos, and etc. from being made available to the masses. Hart noted how interesting it is that those creating laws seem to understand the powerful potential of certain inventions before the world at large has a chance and offered the following examples:
- 1709 – The Statute of Anne stifled The Gutenberg Press
- 1831 – The US Copyright Law stifled the 1830 high speed steam patent press
- 1909 – The US Copyright Law stifled the new high speed electric presses
- 1976 – The US Copyright Law stifled the Xerox machine
- 1998 – The US Copyright Law stifled the Internet
However, even with this challenge comes much success. Such as those who discover one of the literary greats (maybe Shakespeare) for the first time or rediscover a long lost favorite via Project Gutenberg and send notes of thanks. Of course, their volunteers are an inspiration as well. “We estimate that tens of thousands of people have helped in some way–proofreading a page, sending an error report, or digitizing an entire book,” Newby said.
Project Gutenberg survives on donated Internet servers with volunteer labor, software, and content–something they’ve done from the very beginning. “Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Project Gutenberg has not been just the idea/ideal of a free downloadable eBook library, but also the idea/ideal that people from all over the world, without a budget of any size at all, can get together to change the world via the virtual community of the Internet,” mentioned Hart.
Hmm…sharing, open ideals, volunteers–sounds a little familiar, eh? And, since you are reading this, maybe you’re also interested in lending a hand? If so, there are several ways to help:
- Add books to Project Gutenberg. Find books, scan them or type them up, and get them into circulation.
- Help get books out of the Project Gutenberg electronic library. How? Give away DVDs packaged with thousands of eBooks.
- Donate. Even if just a dollar for a couple dozen book downloads (but, please, not less than a dollar as processing fees will take almost all of it away).
- Check out the World eBook Fair (July 4, 2007 – August 4, 2007). Created by contributions from 150+ eLibraries around the world with eBooks available in more than 100 languages, the World eBook Fair features nearly two-thirds of a million free eBooks and 110,000 commercial eBooks.
- Get involved with the Distributed Proofreaders.
Distributed Proofreaders allows volunteer editors to work on a book or content piece one page of at a time. It also allows for double proofreading by two different reviewers. Not only does this increase the quantity of books added to their library, but it also increases the quality–books of such high quality as to even surpass the recommendations of the Library of Congress. And all this starts from one page by one person during one free moment of time. With a commitment level as low as that, even overworked software engineers could contribute. Anything is possible.