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Interview with Michael Hart - The Second Gutenberg

Part 1

SKOPJE, Macedonia, May 27 (UPI) -- The champion of what he says is a dwindling public domain, Michael S. Hart is the founder of a now legendary project that publishes texts on the Internet for which the copyright has expired.

The ethos of the early Internet owes a lot to Hart, who as the father of e-publishing and e-books, created the first online library, Project Gutenberg.

A professor of electronic text at Benedictine University in Illinois, Hart launched a mass movement of volunteers who scan, proofread and upload dozens of new e-texts every week, all in the most common, most easily accessible format.

"Michael Hart is a visionary who was quite ahead of his time. In fact, it may still be several years before his dream of universally-available literature comes true," says Glenn Sanders, director of eBookWeb.org.

"Nevertheless, Michael's efforts have inspired thousands of people around the world who now share his vision."

Hart is a former visiting scientist at Carnegie Mellon University where he was a fellow of the Internet archive in 2000. He founded Project Gutenberg in 1971 when $100 million of computer time was made available to him by the University of Illinois operators of a Xerox mainframe. Currently he is the project's executive coordinator.

He pioneered not only the dissemination of electronic texts -- but also some of the working models that underpinned the Internet until the dot.com crash two years ago.

Project Gutenberg is, by now, an integral part of the myth and history of our networked world. Most texts online are in the public domain. But a few are copyrighted -- with permission to store the work granted by authors and publishers or other copyright holders.

As copyrights expire, thousands of works are added monthly to the public domain, where they can be freely replicated and distributed. Most of these books are out of print and saved only by the project from obscurity and ultimate oblivion.

The recurrent extension of copyright terms by Congress hampers this work by restricting the growth of the public domain or even by removing texts from it. It benefits, he says, very few copyright holders at the expense of universal access to literature and knowledge.

Hart mourns the rapidly dwindling public domain.

"In the U.S.A., no copyrights will expire from now to 2019! It is even much worse in many other countries, where they actually removed 20 years from the public domain," Hart said. "Books that had been legal to publish all of a sudden were not. Friends told me that in Italy, for example, all the great Italian operas that had entered the public domain are no longer there."

Same goes for the United Kingdom. Germany increased its copyright term to more than 70 years back in the 1960s. It is a domino effect. Australia is the only country I know of that has officially stated they will not extend the copyright term by 20 years to more than 70."

Such vocations as Hart's carry a heavy price tag in recurrent frustration and cumulative exhaustion. Hart may be tired, but he does not sound bitter. He is still a fount of brilliant ideas, thought-provoking insights, exuberant optimism, and titillating predictions.

Three decades of constant battle ended in partial victory -- but Hart is as energetic as ever, straining at the next, seemingly implausible target.

"A million books to a billion people in all corners of the globe," Hart said.

Inevitably, he sometimes feels cornered. "They" figure in many of his statements -- the cynical and avaricious establishment that will sacrifice anything to secure the diminishing returns of a few more copies sold. In the project's life time, the period of copyright has been extended from an average of 30 years to 95 years.

Moreover, no notice of renewal is required to enjoy the copyright extensions.

This protectionism, Hart believes, hinders the spread of literacy, deprives the masses of much needed knowledge, discriminates against the poor, and, ultimately, undermines democracy.

Q: "Project Gutenberg" is a self-conscious name. In which ways is the project comparable to Gutenberg's revolution?

A: When I chose the name, the major factor in mind was that publishing e-books would change the map of literacy and education as much as did the Gutenberg press, which reduced the price of books to 1/400th of their previous price tag. From the equivalent of the cost of an average family farm, books became so inexpensive that you could see a wagonload of them in the weekend marketplace in small villages at prices that even these people could afford.

Another way our project compares to Gutenberg's revolution is that copyright laws were created to stop both.

When we only had a dozen e-books online, the price of putting one on a computer was about 1/400th the price of a paperback. But obviously with 100 gigabyte drives coming down to $100, the price of putting e-books on computers has fallen so low as to be literally "too cheap to meter." Those who like to meter everything on the cash scale are incredibly upset about Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg is the first example of a paradigm shift from "limited distribution" to "unlimited distribution", now touted as "the information age". However, you should be aware that this is the fourth such information age. Each such phase has been stifled by making it illegal to use new technologies to copy texts. In 1710, the Statute of Anne copyright made it illegal for any but members of the ancient Stationers' Guild to use a Gutenberg press. Then, in 1909, the United States doubled the term of all copyrights to eliminate "reprint houses" who were using the new steam and electric powered presses to compete with the old-boy publishing network.

The third information age came in 1976 when the United States increased the copyright term to 75 years and eliminated the requirement to file copyright renewals, to stifle changes brought on by Xerox machines. In 1998, the United States extended the copyright term yet again, to 95 years, to eliminate publication via the Internet.

Q: The concept of e-texts or e-books back in 1971 was novel. What made you think of this particular use for the $100 million in spare computer time you were given by the University of Illinois?

A: What allowed me to think of this particular use for computers so long before anyone else did is the same thing that allows every other inventor to create their inventions: being at the right place, at the right time, with the right background. As Lermontov said in The Red Shoes: "Not even the greatest magician in the world can pull a rabbit out of a hat if there isn't already a rabbit in it."

I owe this background to my parents, and to my brother. I grew up in a house full of books and electronics, so the idea of combining the two was obviously not as great a leap as it would have been for someone else. I repaired my Dad's hi-fi the first time when I was in the second grade, and was also the kid who adjusted everyone's TV and antennas when they were so new everyone was scared of them.

I have always had a knack for electronics, and built and rebuilt radios and other electronics all my life, even though I never read an electronics book or manuals. It was just natural.

Let me tell you a story about how the project started: I happened to stop at our local IGA grocery store on the way. We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries. So, as I fumbled through my backpack for something to eat, I found the Declaration of Independence and had a "light-bulb moment."

I thought for a while to see if I could figure out anything I could do with the computer that would be more important than typing in the Declaration of Independence, something that would still be there 100 years later, but couldn't come up with anything, and so Project Gutenberg was born.

You have to remember that the Internet had just gone transcontinental and this was one of the very first computers on it. Somehow I had envisioned the Net in my mind very much as it would become 30 years later.

I envisioned sending the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the Net, all 100 of them, which would have crashed the whole thing. Luckily Fred Ranck stopped me, and we just posted a notice in what would later become comp.gen. I think about six out of the 100 users at the time downloaded it.

Q: Between 1971 and 1993 you produced 100 e-texts. And then, in less than nine years, an additional few thousand. What happened?

A: People rarely understand the power of doubling something every so often. In 1991, we were doing one e-book per month. This was totally revolutionary at the time. People kept predicting that we couldn't continue, but we were planning on doubling production every year, which we did for most years. We are now adding 200 e-texts a month.

Q: Can you give us some current download statistics?

A: As for stats, this is pretty much impossible since we don't directly control any but one or two of what I presume are hundreds of sites around the world that have our files up for download. What I can tell you is that the one site we have the most control of gives away over a million e-books per month.

Q: The Internet is often castigated as an English-language, affluent people's toy. Project Gutenburg includes predominantly English language, Western world, texts. Do you intend to make it more multi-cultural and multilingual?

A: I encourage all languages as hard as I possibly can. So far we have English, Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Danish, Welsh, Portuguese, Old Dutch, Bulgarian, Dutch/Flemish, Greek, Hebrew. We have texts in Old French, Polish, Russian, Romanian, and Farsi in progress. I wonder if we should count mathematics as a language? I was surprised at how many people were interested when we first uploaded Pi to a million places.

Q: Why are stand-alone images (e.g., films, photographs) and sound excluded or rare?

A: We have tried some, but haven't received much feedback. Still, we will continue to experiment with all formats. Also, these files are total hogs for drives and bandwidth. Our short movie of the lunar landing is twice as big as Shakespeare and the Bible combined in uncompressed format. It's only a couple minutes long, and low-resolution. Think how big a whole movie would be, even not at high resolution. It would take up a couple CD-ROMs.

Q: Project Gutenburg now makes files available as DOC/RTF and HTML -- as well as plain vanilla ASCII. Yet, plain-text delivery seemed to have been a basic tenet of the project. What made you change your mind?

A: We're willing to post in all kinds of file formats, but the only format everyone can read is plain vanilla ASCII, so we always try to include that. Project Gutenberg has been available on CDs for years.

Q: The failure of the advertising-sponsored revenue model forces Internet-based content generators and aggregators to charge for their wares. Will Project Gutenberg continue to be free -- and, if so, how will it finance itself? Example: who is paying for the hosting and bandwidth now?

A: It's all volunteer. And the number of sites continues to grow, and to reach more and more regions around the world for easier local access. Actually, all the hosting, bandwidth, etc. are voluntary, too. However, we desperately need donations to do copyright research, cataloging, to hire librarians and library and information science professors, to support the Project Gutenberg spin-offs in other languages and countries, not to mention mundane things such as phone and utility bills, computers, drives, backups, etc. We need volunteers equally desperately. Volunteering is perhaps the only way for one person to work for a week or a month on a book and get it to a hundred million people.

Q: The reaction to e-books fluctuates wildly between euphoria and gloom.

A: This is only the commercial point of view. They want to take it over or sink it to the bottom. There are no other commercial perspectives. Between 1500-1550, thanks to the Gutenberg press, more books were printed than in all of history previous to Gutenberg. I have hopes like that for e-books.

Q: Some say that e-books are doomed, having miserably failed to capture the public's imagination and devotion. Others predict a future of ubiquitous, ATM-printed, e-books, replete with olfactory, tactile, audio, and 3-D effects. What is your scenario?

A: The main trouble with these predictions is not only that they are made solely with the commercial aspects in mind, but that they are made by an assortment of people from pre-e-book generations, who have no idea that you could use the same gizmo to play MP3s as to read or listen to e-books. The younger generations have no doubt about e-books. It's only the dinosaurs that have no idea what's going on. We are still getting e-mail stating that not one person is ever going to read books from computers!

Who will be the more well-read -- those who can carry at most a dozen books with them, or those who have a PDA in their pocket with a hundred or more e-books in it? Who will look up more quotations in context? Who will use the dictionary more often? Who will look up geographical information more often?

These are all things I do with my little antique PDA and the new ones are already a dozen times more powerful.


Part 2

SKOPJE, Macedonia, May 28 (UPI) -- Michael S. Hart is the founder of a now legendary project that publishes texts on the Internet for which the copyright has expired.

The ethos of the early Internet owes a lot to Hart, who as the father of e-publishing and e-books, created the first online library, Project Gutenberg.

A professor of electronic text at Benedictine University in Illinois, Hart launched a mass movement of volunteers who scan, proofread and upload dozens of new e-texts every week, all in the most common, most easily accessible format.

Part 1 of this two-part interview ran Monday.

Hart said, "I want to tell you the story of when I first realized that Project Gutenberg was going to work. It was about 10 years before we published our 2,000th e-text. We had only about a dozen e-books online. At the beginning of 1989 there were only 80,000 host computers in the entire Internet -- though by October that year the number had doubled.

"I was on the phone one day, with the executive director of Common Knowledge, a project to put the Library of Congress catalogs into public domain records. During the conversation, there was this huge noise.

"The woman was back in a minute, and laughing her head off, she told me her son had been playing around with her computer, and found this copy of Project Gutenberg's "Alice in Wonderland" and had started to read it. He mentioned this at school, and a few of the kids followed him home to see it. The next day even more kids followed. Eventually, the number of kids grew so great that they were hanging off this huge oak chair.

"Eventually this oak chair had so many kids all over it, reading "Alice in Wonderland", that it literally separated into all its parts and kids went tumbling in all directions. At that very moment, in 1989, I realized that e-books were going to succeed, no matter what any of a number of adults thought. To the next generation, this will be how they remember "Alice in Wonderland," just as my memory of it was a golden inscribed red leather edition my family used to read from together.

"Four years later, in 1993, there were still under 100 Project Gutenberg e-books. A neighbor dropped by to talk to me one day and in the course of the conversation mentioned he had read the Project Gutenberg "Alice in Wonderland." I had no idea his interests even included computers. He had found a few errors. I hurried home to correct them and to put the new edition online.

"At first I was in happy shock just because I could improve our edition, but then it occurred to me that perhaps the more important aspect was that someone I knew had downloaded Alice all on his own, then read the entire book from "cover to cover" on his computer.

"There are lots of stories like this: professors who tell me their students will not read paper textbooks (and) Texas preparing for all textbooks to be e-books."

Q: Project Gutenberg is a prime example of two phenomena characteristic to the early Internet: collaborative efforts and volunteering. With the crass commercialization of the Net -- will people continue to volunteer and collaborate -- or will corporate, brick and mortar, behemoths take over?

A: Well, the commercialization of the Web started in 1994, and that didn't wipe us out. It took us 30 years to do our first 5,000 e-books, and I'll bet you a pizza that it will only take 30 months to do our second 5,000! Then we will write up a schedule for 1,000,000!

Q: In other words: Project Gutenberg is the reification of the spirit of the Internet.

A: Definitely. So was "Ask Dr. Internet", another of my personas.

Q: Should the Internet change dramatically, what will happen to Project Gutenberg? Will you ever consider going commercial, for instance? If not, how do you plan to adapt?

A: Why should we go commercial? That just invites a downfall if the money goes away. Which they would love to happen -- and would probably encourage it. It's hard to kill off something that doesn't have a physical plant or a budget and cannot be bought. We will adapt by doing the entire public domain, including graphics, music, movies, sculpture, paintings, photographs, etc.

Q: Project Gutenberg makes obscure and inaccessible texts as well as seminal works easily and globally available. Doesn't this lead to an embarrassment of riches or to confusion? In other words: all Project Gutenberg e-texts are "equal". It is a "democratic" system. There is no "text rating", historical context, peer review, quality control or censorship.

A: This is because I am not a very bossy boss. I encourage our volunteers to choose their own favorites, not just what I think they should do. However, I am sure we will get all the warhorses done.

Q: The e-texts posted on Project Gutenberg are copyright free or with permission from their authors and publishers. How do you cope with the inordinately extended copyright period in the United States?

A: I just finished up years of working on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in the hope of overturning the latest copyright extensions. As for coping, you just do the best you can with the cards you are dealt.

Q: What are the effects of such legislation on public literacy?

A: The United States used to say we would send aid to the entire world, in the form of food, clothing, medical supplies, as much as we could afford. But now that literacy can be disseminated at no expense, we refuse to do it by pretty much stifling the public domain.

Q: Project Gutenberg has a mirror site in Australia where copyright law is less stringent.

A: Actually, they are a totally separate organization, using our name with permission, just as does the Gutenberg Projekt-DE in Germany.

Q: Are such "back doors" the solution? What about the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)?

A: I am so a-political that you could call me anti-political. I would prefer a copyright of 10 years or so. Only the biggest of the best sellers might make 10 percent more after 10 years, and they don't need it. Do we really want laws that support only the biggest and richest? I love "The Bridges of Madison County", but I don't think 95 years, or even 75 years, or even 56 years of corporations, family and other heirs should be supported by it. It then becomes the "Duchy of Madison County" and we are stuck with generations of "Dukes of Madison County."

What we will end up with under these copyright laws is a "landed gentry of the information age" who just keep inheriting. Copyright should expire soon enough that the authors, if they want to keep getting paid, have to come back to work again. After all, there is no other job in the world in which one piece of work can keep paying off for 95 years.

By the way, do you realize that Ted Turner made millions, probably hundreds of millions, from the copyright extension of just "Gone With The Wind", not counting the hundreds of other movies he owns, all from one vote of Congress. Congress should not be allowed to write laws that create windfall profits for 1 percent of the population and take away a million books from all the rest.

Q: What does Project Gutenberg intend to do about the legislative asymmetry between content producers and creators -- and content consumers? Lobby Congress? Testify? Protest? Organize petitions? Place "Gone with the Wind" on the Internet and wait for a show trial?

A: Project Gutenberg Australia already has done "Gone With The Wind," as their 50th e-book -- that's good enough for me at the moment. Eldred vs. Ashcroft was originally drafted as Hart vs. Reno, but the lawyers, Lessig and Co., wouldn't include one word of mine in the case, so I fired them.

Q: Gutenberg texts are sometimes used as freebies within a commercial (monolithic, Walnut Creek) or semi-commercial product (such as the Public Domain Reader). Is this acceptable? Why don't you charge them a license fee?

A: Walnut Creek Project Gutenberg CD's weren't free and they sent us nice donations. The commercial outfits have to pay for a license, the non-commercial ones usually don't. Each case is separately decided. While we don't do any ads on our sites, we don't insist that others don't.

Q: Technology is often considered the antonym of "culture". TV, for instance, is berated for its vulgar, low-brow, programming. Hollywood is often chastized for its indulgence in gratuitous violence and sex.

A: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of their audience. As long as these are "commercial applications" that's what you will get. What else could you possibly expect? These are all examples of "capitalism gone awry". By the way, I'm not anti-capitalism, I really am an Ayn Rand freak, figure that out -- hee hee! I am doing Project Gutenberg for the most selfish of reasons -- because I want a world that has Project Gutenberg in it.

Q: E-books are equated with low-quality vanity publishing. Yet, Project Gutenberg seems to embody the conviction that technology can do wonders for the dissemination of culture, literacy, democracy, civil society and so on.

A: E-books do wonders for the dissemination of culture, literacy, democracy, civil society and so on. You do realize that the Declaration of Independence is/was the first manmade item in all of history that everyone can have, in as many copies as they want. Do you realize that a 5 gigabyte section of a hard drive can hold a million copies of that file, uncompressed? Terabyte drive systems are already available for only around $2,500. Ten years from now 5-terabyte hard disk partitions will be able to hold a billion copies.

Q: Are you a romantic believer in the power of technology to bring progress?

A: Well, I'm certainly an incurable romantic, and I believe that technology can bring progress, but I don't know if they are, or have to be, related.

Q: And do you see any dangers in e-books and freely available e-texts (hate speech for example)?

A: Once you start censoring, you are playing with Pandora's Box. Just look at what they are doing with Little Black Sambo, who wasn't even black, and with Uncle Remus, who was? This is awful. "Song of the South" was required viewing when I was in school and now I can't even show this generation what we were required to study when I was a kid. 1984 really did arrive.

Q: In some ways, you "compete" directly with other bastions of education -- libraries and universities. How do you get along? What about other repositories of knowledge such as Project Bartleby? Governments?

A: Actually, we cooperate with them, not compete with them. We make all our files available to them and encourage them to make the texts available to everyone. Some of them view this as competition, but we don't. Some prefer to control distribution to be a gate that they can open and close at will. We prefer the doors always to be open. Have you ever considered why, with the hundred millions of dollars granted to found e-libraries at the major universities some 10 years ago, and undoubtedly hundreds of millions more donated since then, why you are doing an interview with someone sitting at a basement, running computer hardware and software that is 10 and 20 years old? If any college, or company, much less university, city, county, state or country was willing to do this, you would have never heard of me.

Q: What has been the personal cost? In retrospect: Are you happy with it? Would you have done it again?

A: I can't think of anything more rewarding to do as a career than Project Gutenberg. It is something that will reach more people than any other project in all of history. It is as powerful as "the bomb," but everyone can benefit from it. And it doesn't make a decent weapon. It doesn't cost anyone anything and it is the very first, though obviously primitive, example of The neo-Industrial Revolution, when everyone can have everything -- though they are sure to pass a law against it.

I said this in 1971, in the very first week of Project Gutenberg, that by the end of my lifetime you would be able to carry every word in the Library of Congress in one hand -- but they will pass a law against it. I realized they would never let us have that much access to so much information. I never heard that they passed the copyright extension five years later. It was pretty much a secret, just as is the current one, unless the Supreme Court strikes it down. Only then will it make the news. Congress passed that copyright law together with impeachment proceedings of President Clinton, just to make sure it never made the news.

As far as the cost, the happiness, the frustration -- I am a natural-born workaholic and idealist, so I overcome the technical frustrations. It's the social frustrations that are the hardest to deal with, the people who want permanent copyright, even though the extensions are already bringing about "The Landed Gentry of the Information Age."

Q: Any thought about the future?

A: Precedents set by the Sonny Bono copyright law could well have an enormous unpredicted effect on computer applications of the future. One such application is the "printing" of solid three dimensional objects, often referred to as rapid prototyping. These printers have been with us since the 1980s and now are in a price range of the 5-megabyte hard drives on the first computer to house Project Gutenberg in 1971. If you count the inflation factor, they obviously are much more affordable.

In addition to cost reductions, these 3-D printers now can print on a variety of materials. The list of printable substances should expand over the years until we can eventually print out actual working items, rather than the models we print out today. Given that very inexpensive printers today can print in millions of colors, and that color computer printers were pretty much non-existent 30 years ago, we should at least consider the possibility that printers 30 years from now might be able to "print" on an extremely wide variety of materials, and that some day we will be able to "print out" a car and drive it away. This copyright law covers 95 years. Let's look back to 95 years and see the "copyright" to what things we may want to print out would have just now expired:

1. The Wright-Brothers' airplane and blueprints.

2. A dozen brands of early automobiles.

3. Everything Edison invented until he was nearly 60.

Obviously there are many more.

The point here is that under current intellectual property law, it would be difficult to print out anything invented today that reached the market in two years -- until 2100, a time when these items would no longer have any use. When the Star Trek replicators become a reality, will it be illegal to actually use them? Will all food items be genetically manipulated organisms so that it will be impossible to find natural foods that could be copied?

When I grew up in Washington state, there were plenty of wild blackberries, raspberries, apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, grapes. I never even considered buying any of these at a store. But today there has been a serious effort to discourage free food supplies, and not only in Washington, but also in most other states.

Last night at dinner, one of our volunteers remarked that he expected that by the end of his lifetime he might be eating a dinner of replicated food. I pointed out that by that time -- "they" would make it very difficult to find any kind of food not protected against replication by intellectual property laws and that that was one of the major reasons for extending copyright, so that when it would be possible for everyone to be well-read and well-fed, they will have made it illegal to do so. The trend is that everything should cost something. In some places there are even machines that dispense a breath of fresh air for a price.

Do we really want to create a civilization in which everything has a price, when there are machines that could copy anything?

Copyright 2002 United Press International
Interview by Sam Vaknin -- UPI Senior Business Correspondent, from the UPI Business & Economics Desk
Originally published between 5/27/2002 and 5/28/2002