How Michael Hart Revolutionized the Internet

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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March 8, 2009

In the annus mirabilis of 1971, Michael Hart conceived of electronic books (e-books), open sourcing, and of user-generated content in one stroke of genius.

Hart established Project Gutenberg: a repository of tens of thousands of public domain texts, freely available online. It is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind and has spawned numerous imitators, emulators, and mirror sites. E-books became a mainstream item with giant commercial enterprises - from Microsoft through Yahoo and Amazon to Google and Barnes and Noble - entering the fray.

Project Gutenberg relied on the contributions and input of volunteers from around the world, who digitized public domain books in accordance with an ever-evolving set of rules. The software underlying the Project was available to be modified, tinkered with, and replicated on other Websites, This model of collaboration now underlies open source software, "crowdsourcing", and projects such as the Wikipedia.

Most pundits agree that in the history of knowledge and scholarship, e-books are as important as the Gutenberg press, invented five centuries ago. Many would say that they constitute a far larger quantum leap. As opposed to their print equivalents, e-books are public goods: cost close to nothing to produce, replicate, and disseminate. Anyone with access to minimal technology or even the oldest computers can read e-books.

Project Gutenberg eBooks were being read on iPods within a week of the latter's introduction, not to mention cell phones and smarter variants thereof, such as the iPhone. With well over 4 billion cell (mobile) phones (according to the United Nations) compared c. 1 billion computers, the former may well turn out to be the preferred platform for reading text.

Over the years, I have interviewed Michael Hart and we have corresponded prolifically on a variety of topics. I have always relished his anti-authoritarian streak. Michael is a true, unvarnished and non-compromising independent, out to empower the individual at the expense of faceless, heartless corporate and government bureaucracies.

March 8 being Michael's 62nd birthday, we have decided to publish snippets of our exchanges.

Happy Birthday, Michael!!!


Some people refer to you as "The First Citizen of the Internet" ...


Perhaps because I was the first person to be on the Internet's systems without being paid to do so. Everyone else I knew of was a government employee, staff, or one of the student slave wage computer operators, their bosses, etc.

I was certainly "none of the above."

I was probably the first "hitchhiker" on the Internet and that helped to give me the unique perspective that led to the creation of Project Gutenberg, Open Source, virtual communities, and a host of other things we all take for granted now.

Project Gutenberg was the first "site" on the Internet, the first place people went to download materials, general information, and so on. There may have been similar things at the companies that serviced the mainframes, but certainly not the general stuff the public could download or upload that we see today.

I certainly appeared to be the first to view computers as a huge communications network independent of their computing ability.

I remember saying, back in 1971:

"Computers Aren't Just For Computing Anymore."


I've heard various versions of the events of the night of July 4th, 1971. What really happened?


I realized I had a BIG IDEA, the lightbulb went on at 1:41 AM, on July 5th.

It was a sultry night, and after the fireworks I wasn't sure whether I'd be better off trying to find somewhere to crash on campus to save a
lot of hot walking right then, and the return trip in mere hours.

So, I decided to see if I could get into Materials Research Lab (where I was not always welcome), where the Xerox Sigma V mainframe was (and where I was always welcome). Then, as now, there were already people who viewed me as a real threat to their hard-won positions of title and power.

The fact that I "lived" behind the stainless steel window, where they had to come, praying and paying, hoping that their programs would prove worthy of the mighty machine. . .well. . .I hadn't really realized it yet, myself, but it bothered a lot of people, and I was routinely locked out of the building with the aim of precluding me from doing my homework in the air-conditioned quarters - air-conditioning being a status symbol and one of the perks they had enjoyed.

That night in particular was going to be tough, as it was late and not a school night, so the building would already be tight, and only the hardest of hardcore workers would be there, the kind, I must add, that liked me the least.

So I spent nearly an hour casing the entire first floor with no luck other than to have one of the aforementioned people who thought I didn't belong there refuse to let me in when I asked. I suggested he should call the police if that's how he felt about my presence. He knew that the police would ask the night operator who would know it was me, and I would be let in. It was nasty, but funny.

Finally, just as I was about to give it all up and snooze there on the lawn for a bit, I heard someone come out and I jumped up and ran around the building, but it was too late, the door closed and I was locked out once more. However, being a slightly forward young man, I asked in a plain up front manner if they would go back and let me in, so I would not have to walk home that night. I explained that I was NOT on the list and that technically the whole process was probably more or less illegal, but they went back to the door to do the honors of letting me in.

I ran upstairs to the Sigma V, and was let in so fast it probably made the heads spin on those who thought I must not be allowed such privileged access.

The first thing I found out was that my own personal account on the Sigma V had been approved. . .not that I wanted one at all.

You see, the boss of the people I knew there felt there was the risk of something bad happening unintentionally as I poked in a very amateurish way around the computer. I had actually been mentioned in their meetings as a risk factor. The solution, rather than throw me out as some in there would have preferred, was to give me my own account, with a lot less power, permissions, etc. than the "operator account" I had been using all the time, having memorized my friend's password.

Thus, as of July 4, 1971, I had my own account with some staggering amount of computer money in it that I would never be able to use up, but was told there was plenty more, no worries.

Now just to be honest here, I rarely, if ever, used the account I had just been given, simply because I had already memorized a very hard password, and mine was even harder. I did bill my jobs to the new account number, so the people who had been kind enough to open this legal door for me would think I was using it properly.

So, after all the hoopla, I had to figure out the right thing to do with all my new found legal computing power.

I didn't have a clue. . . .

I was hungry, I was tired, it had been 11PM before I even got a foot in the door, I had no ideas percolating in the wee hours. So, I decided I should pump up the blood sugar levels with some goodies I had bought on the way from the fireworks and I dumped my bookbag on the floor to get some brownie mix when out popped a faux parchment copy of The U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The lightbulb literally went on over my head like in the cartoons!

You see I had wanted to put something on the Internet that was going to stay there, ever since the first day I had learned we were on this new network that would let us send messages, files and whatever else to Berkeley and Harvard simultaneously and to bunches of other hotshot places in between.

Apparently no one had ever done such a thing and I thought it was the perfect thing to do.

I got permission and was told that if I finished by morning I could move immediately into the next step: an accessible file for anyone who wanted it. They even promised to write up a note in what would later become "comp gen" (general notes for computer users) about how to obtain the file.

So, I sat up all night long typing, proofreading, typing more, proofreading more, printing, reprinting, typing, retyping, and finally, just at the deadline, I had something to send to what I believed would be a whole world of readers.

I handed over my little spool of paper tape just in time for a changing of the guard to the day shift, and I was feeling just fantastic, when it turned out the person receiving it was. . . are you ready. . .my best friend! You see, I had always been there on the night shift and off to my 8AM classes before the shift change.

"What are YOU doing here?!?!?" I exclaimed.

"What am _I_ doing here?!?!? What are YOU doing here?!?!??"

"I'm always here!!! This is where I do my homework."

"_I_ WORK here!!!"


Well, it was a long funny conversation sorting out all the times that we must have just missed each other. My brother's best friend ran the midnight to 8AM shift and my best friend ran the 8AM to 5PM shift, but we never knew of each other's existence!

So, that was how the first title of Project Gutenberg got onto the Internet and why it was The Declaration of Independence.


Almost forty years later, the publishing industry, pundits, and professions still don't know how to "digest" eBooks ...


Invariably, the first thing the pundits and professionals say is that there aren't enough eBook sales to really matter. This is, of course, one of those "category errors".

That ebooks equal money is obviously a false statement, even in light of how much media exposure financial behemoths such a Google, Sony, and Amazon get whenever they mention their eBook programs. Yet, even when toeing the line to generate PR for these giants, the media do not give much in the way of real data to work with.

Consider Project Gutenberg:

The media almost always provide the smallest possible number for Project Gutenberg of under 30,000 titles, even though the grand total of all Project Gutenberg titles available passed the 100,000 mark several years ago. On the other hand, they refuse to mention that Project Gutenberg gives away millions of eBooks per month. Admittedly, they also declined to even speculate on the total sales of Sony and Amazon readers until they reached approximately a million units between them, just recently. Think what they would write if iPods and iPhones sold only a million units combined, they would be branded a FAILURE.

Another example of media corporate bias:

As I said, Project Gutenberg ebooks have been available on iPods and iPhones since their very first week of sales. Google was just rewarded by yet another round of PR for its cellphone ebooks and again there was no mention that Project Gutenberg ebooks in a number of formats have been on many cellphones for years now!  In fact, we are adding another new cellphone format even as we speak.

I have been touting cellphones as the wave of the future since the days before the iPhone. . .Steve Jobs is one of the brightest, and I hope his health improves, we need people like him, desperately. Try thinking what the world would be like if there had never been a Steve Jobs. Where would the computer industry be?

As for Google, the truth this, I am pretty sure they peruse articles I write in detail, as it never seems to take them too long to "invent" whatever it is I have been pushing the last few years or decades.

The major statistic the pundits and professionals never mention is on what day will there be more ebooks than paper books. Then comes the obvious follow up: How many of those ebooks are available as free downloads? Governments don't seem as interested as they should be either, perhaps because they don't derive any tax revenue from free eBooks.

What is it about every generation that makes them think they can tell the next generation[s] how to dress, how to cut their hair, what kind of music they should listen to, etc? When it comes to ebooks it is much the same: "Your books should look as much as possible like our books"; "We want the look and feel of a real book, not of a computer"; "We want only our own favorite editions to be available, edited, of course, by our own favorite editors from days gone by but not so far gone by that copyright has expired"; "We want pages that look like pages even if there are no pages"; "We want fonts from the period rather than choose you own font."

In other words, these people want to make all the decisions in a world in which all the decisions should belong to all readers. Any reader should be able to read ebooks in their favorite font, and there should be no opinion allowed from the peanut gallery.

Thorough control is what these people want. If, or when things get out of control, even music, hairstyle, reading, they quake in their hobnail boots for fear that they have lost control. A great number of the very wealthy are more concerned with having and maintaining CONTROL than even getting richer: they want to CONTROL what we read, to KNOW what we are reading, as in being able to tally up and record all the bookstore receipts, library cards, etc. . .but with eBooks. . .they never really know, do they?

The same goes for browsing through all the Shakespeare editions rather than listening to interminable argumentation as to what should be the correct punctuation of "To be, or not to be."  When it comes to the first time you read Shakespeare, it doesn't really matter what edition it is, that's not what you notice, you notice the pure genius and poetry of story.

"Do it right/perfectly the first time."

If I had taken that advice I'd still be back in 1971 with competing copies of "The Declaration of Independence," since none of them agreed as to how the document should be.

You probably could never believe how often people tried to slow me down with Project Gutenberg, with the only common thread being that I should do things THEIR way, and much more SLOWLY!!! If I had waited even HALF as long as they wanted, we would not be having this conversation, and you would have never heard of ebooks, certainly not from Project Gutenberg, except as in possibly the most obscure of footnotes.

The most important part is just to get started with the books; the rest are extras. Yes, you can get more out of a book by reading about it, but the
process usually starts just by reading the book over again with nothing but your own opinion and the fact that you LIKE it. We seem to have lost track of the idea/ideal that we should actually LIKE what we are reading.

To enhance our experience, we should be able to choose the font, margins, etc., except, of course for songs and poetry, but, in general, ebooks should
look the way WE want them to look, not the way some ivory tower academiac decided they should look generations ago. If we read more easily in a blue or green font, that should be our choice. If we want to hear various voices "read aloud" the ebooks, those should also be OUR choices.

With ebooks, at least the plain vanilla ones, all these choices belong to the reader.

With paper books all those choices belong to publishers.

"Power To The Reader!"


You use the phrase "eBooks Too Cheap to Meter" from time to time. Can you tell me what you mean by that?


Fifty-five years ago, Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said to the National Association of Science Writers, in New York City:

"Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter" along with other such predictions, as reported in The New York Times in their September 17, 1954 issue.

Of course, as we all know, electric rates never went down, quite the opposite. To a degree, this allowed brownouts, blackouts, and the entire Enron fiasco to appear to be legitimate shortages when, in fact these amounted to a scam to bilk millions of people out of billions of dollars. No matter how you look at it, nuclear power has NOT given us electricity that was too cheap to meter, or anything like it.

However, since 1971, various Internet projects, originating with the e-library of Project Gutenberg, HAVE give the world all sorts of products literally for free, or at a cost too cheap to meter. For some time now, you have been able to get  c. 100,000 ebooks from the library of Project Gutenberg, free for the taking, and 1,000's more are being added every year. In addition, there are now 1.25 million somewhat less polished ebooks at the Internet Archive, many of which are being adapted and cleaned up by the likes of Project Gutenberg and others. Even without counting Google, there are plenty of ebook sites worldwide, with totals into the millions, all at no charge to the reader.

This is certainly ONE promise the Internet has kept, though the professionals and pundits of the media seem to like keeping it under wraps.

Every July 4, on the anniversary of the first Project Gutenberg ebook title, entire e-libraries gather to form "The World eBook Fair" ( Last year, the Fair comprised over 1.25 million free ebooks from major e-libraries and over 100,000 available at a discount from various commercial eBook providers.

This doesn't sound like much compared to the figures above, simply because the growth of the number of ebooks is so fantastic that any quantity you can put in any collection in the span of one year is guaranteed to be dwarfed in a very short time. However, if we are lucky, we will see TWO million ebooks in 2009 available for any visitor to take home.

The World Public Library ( offers a half million very nicely packaged eBooks in PDF format and full price subscriptions are only
$8.95 per year, with multi-tiered discounts for schools and other groups. Half a million books for under $9??? Go ahead, figure out the average price per book ... Sounds like "TOO CHEAP TO METER" to me!!!

Today you can buy terabyte drives for $99. I should know, I have 5 of them, plus my now antique .5T drives and smaller. 5 terabytes. 5 trillion characters. Not counting compression, or it would be 12.5 trillion characters. The first Project Gutenberg files were about 5 thousand characters each.
Two hundred such files equal a megabyte. Two hundred thousand such files equal a gigabyte. Two hundred million such files equal a terabyte.

My five drives could hold a BILLION such files! With compression it goes up to well over TWO BILLION such files.

Ok, they are small files, particularly by today's standards. But, let's go for BIG files such as The Complete Shakespeare or King James Bible. Circa 5 million characters in each of those massive files. I could have about a million copies of those files in my 5 terabytes. Five terabytes that didn't even cost as much as this laptop I am using. Do you get the idea?

Anyone could add a library of a million very large books to any new computer without even doubling the price, or 2.5 million very large books if you were to use zip or rar files, or 5 million more average-sized books. LOTS of books, at a price per book literally too cheap to be worth figuring out!

Think about it for one minute right now, right here. . .please!

There are only about 100 or some libraries in the whole world with 5 million books or more. YOU COULD ENTER THAT VERY RARIFIED FIELD. . .at practically no cost.

Obviously, if any government really gave more than "lip service" to the idea of literacy, or of education, we would long ago have been inundated with very large public project e-libraries in virtually every country in the world. As it is there are only a few worthy of mention, and none of them have large
quantities of books compared to the numbers listed above.

eBooks Too Cheap To Meter are coming from "the private sector," not even counting those from Google, particularly since Google makes it
difficult in the extreme to count them. However, if you take Google's word that they have 7.5 million titles digitized, then it is obvious that there are already 10 million eBooks in the world, most of them free or "too cheap to meter." There's something to do with your new stack of terabyte drives!


What about the Kindle? Will it spark a revolution and "legitimize" e-books?


Dedicated machines (remember the Wang word processors) are disadvantaged compared to multipurpose machines, particularly when they are in the same price range.

Speaking of cheap terabytes, I have a question for Amazon and Sony: why the really tiny RAM allocations in their readers?

After all, for $99 anyone can attach a USB terabyte drive to anything. Or, if power supplies are a no-no, you can attach a USB "thumbdrive" to nearly any device these days, or one of the other formats that can fit the various adaptors. I have most of these formats and they run fine either in their own adaptors, or in the various flash readers on the side of my laptop.

When all of these flash drives are in gigabytes, why do we keep getting megabytes Amazon and Sony on their ebook reader devices? Is it just to keep their customers from realizing that their "reader" is in a state of near total emptiness? Why buy a dedicated reader for hundreds of dollars that has MEGABYTES in it instead of gigabytes?

During the preparation of the current interview, the new Kindle 2 came out with just enough available user storage to claim it was in the gigabyte world, though not enough to actually claim the plural, since the user can't really get at any more than 1.4 gigabytes. They say this is enough for 1,500 eBooks so they are obviously not counting a million characters a book as I have been, but it's pretty close, I admit.

Still, a cutting edge 2009 computer product with a storage of 1 gigabyte? Why? Something is wrong. Are Amazon and Sony "dumbing down" the products to make them look fuller than they really are? Nothing else makes sense. How many devices are there out there that cost hundreds of dollars that are set up for RAM storage of approximately one gigabyte? By the time you buy your Kindle and put a decent cover on it, you are up to
the $500 range. . .enough to add 5 terabytes to your existing computer. Heck, my cellphone is already up for replacement and it has a gig in it and
can hold at least 8 gig in the same slot.

This makes no sense at all, at least until you realize that Amazon sells an eBook for $10, so doesn't want you to feel your machine in empty, after you
spend hundreds, or thousands of dollars more on eBooks. After all, at their 1,500 eBook figure, that's $15,000 to fill 'er up. Additionally, the Amazon Kindle store mentions that their USB port is made to connect to power or computers, but no reference is made of connecting to RAM, drives, or any other external storage units.

Let's compare the Kindle to the iPod. Can you buy an iPod with only one gig of RAM? The smallest regular iPods were 4G, and are already passť. iPod Classic sports 120G at a cost of $229 to $249. iPod Shuffle: 1G and 2G at $49 and $69, respectively. They don't make the 160G version any more. iPod Nano used to offer 4G, but now it comes equipped with 8G or 16G at $149 and $199, respectively. And these have a screen.
You can read eBooks on any iPod with a screen, best would be on iPod Touch.

iPod Touch looks like an iPhone, but thinner. It offers audio and comes in 8G, 16G and 32G versions (cost $229, $299 and $399, respectively). It has a built in speaker, uses Wi-Fi, email, browsers. You can use your iPod touch as a stereo remote. You can read in portrait or landscape mode by
just rotating it. Why would someone build something in the same price range as the 32G iPod Touch with just a 1.4G slice of available RAM?

I can go out and buy a 32G USB flash drive for ~$50, and attach it to nearly any computer or any device with USB ports, except to devices such as the Amazon and Sony dedicated eBook readers. Still, it doesn't really cost anything to port to USB thumbdrives, so the reason must be to make it not quite so obvious how much it would cost to fill up your Kindle or Sony with eBooks.

I, personally like the iPod and you could get one of the iPod Touch machines to read out loud since the operating system is Linux. In fact, I'm working on porting a Linux reader right now, and may put the entire thing into a totally Open Source mode when it's done.

Sony and Amazon readers have big screens and this allows them to try to preserve the look or feel of books as they are today (though, not as they would surely be tomorrow). Maybe it's the generation gap between the people who think GameBoy screens, cell screens and iPod screens are sized just fine and the Baby Boomer generation who now have to resort to bifocals, reading glasses, and large fonts as Lasix.

But, the functionality of ebooks does require that we emulate the look of books as they are today. Computers aren't just for computing any more,
and books aren't just for reading any more. Books are becoming a much more active frame in which you can leap at the speed of light from one reference to another, and the more of these references you have, the better it works in the totality of the book experience. The more books, the more functionality; fewer books equal more limited functionality.

What will happen when you can WEAR millions of eBooks on your keychain or on a lanyard? This is obviously going to happen and probably sooner rather than later, as people who bought 8 megabyte USB drives for $60 not even 10 years ago and are now buying 8 gigabytes for $40 right over the counter at Wal-Mart can attest.

By 2020 we will be talking terabytes instead of gigabytes, and there will be reason enough to carry an entire e-library simply as a general resource, a kind of a GPS for the mind. Perhaps that is what e-libraries will become in the next stage of their evolution with program assistance to help you find your way through millions of books you carry. The likes of Amazon or Sony who want you to only think in terms of a limited quantity of ebooks at $10 each will vanish. Instead there will be millions of free books.


Back to Project Gutenberg. Are you satisfied with where it's at?


Project Gutenberg has certainly achieved every quantitative goal I have set for it and usually on time and under budget. Originally, I simply wanted to prove the feasibility of ebooks. I thought that 10,000 reasonably executed ebooks would do the trick and I was hoping to achieve it by the end of 2001. Fact is, we barely survived at least one of those years when our donated financing mysteriously vanished. In fact it happened more than once, which is why we ended up spending money on creating The Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation to take over these responsibilities ourselves and to make sure our funding never vanished again.

Certainly such events are disappointing, but in the end we would be much stronger as a result, and we would be more certain of being able to weather financial storms in the future. What it all comes down to in the end is that I am a proud founder of perhaps the world's largest organization that really,
truly, has nothing you could call a budget. In all these nearly 40 years, in all our various incarnations, we have never had, nor have we spent a total of a million dollars.

This translates to merely $25,000 per year, and each year we had better raise at least that much. Still, we really don't need more to survive, repeated dire warnings by pundits and professionals that we won't make it another year notwithstanding. I am most proud of Project Gutenberg having demonstrated that it doesn't take any real money to change the world via the Internet. After all, "On the Internet no one can tell you are a dog." (I think that's from one of the early "Dilbert" comic strips).

I am not disappointed with how things turned out. With an initial goal of 10,000 ebooks, how can anyone say that having made 100,000 ebooks available is a failure?

I am also not disappointed that Google stepped in when they did, as this was right on schedule: They must have read my words and were ready to pounce the moment we proved feasibility by creating a library of 10,000 freely downloadable ebooks, all handcrafted.

Of course, there was some sting when the big media blitz back on December 14, 2004, never mentioned Project Gutenberg, or indeed, hardly mentioned Gutenberg himself. If I had not known better, I would have presumed that Google had just invented ebooks! However, the fact that the $100 billion dollar plus Google spends an awful lot of money following my lead is somewhat pleasing, in a "Wag The Dog" sort of way.

Apparently, all I have to do is sufficiently promote an ebook idea, and Google or Sony or Amazon will implement what I have suggested. Just look at the current hoopla about ebooks on cellphones, or a "read aloud" system for ebooks. This is something that I have been promoting very hard for years, and I can hardly feel bad if the "Billion Dollar Boys" serve as the producers of my ideas, no matter how ignored my contribution is. It doesn't matter, because I know, you know, and others in the know know, that these were my ideas to start with. I never copyright or patent my ideas. I always leave
them free for the taking, my entire life, because for me it is the transformation of the world that is important, not getting the credit (or the money) for it.

Those pundits and professionals who pooh-poohed ebooks year after year because no one was plunking down billions in the marketplace, failed to take the non-commercial aspect into account with Project Gutenberg's big central site  ( ) handing out millions of ebooks month in and month out for who knows how many years now. These same "experts" won't tell you about the intentional roadblocks to keep the readership off of commercial ebook readers (though, of course, if you know a 15 year old hacker, these obstacles are not a real problem).

Obviously, it is not quite as easy to read Project Gutenberg ebooks on the Kindle, Sony, Rocketbook, etc., as it should be, simply in order pressure people into paying for what is already available free of charge. In fact, one of our local world famous libraries PAYS to get the Project Gutenberg ebooks, PAYS HUGE MONEY, simply because they have been fooled into thinking their commercial provider has improved the ebooks somehow. Actually it is the opposite, as Project Gutenberg releases new and improved, and corrected version of the same ebooks hundreds of times per year, but a commercial provider will rarely, if ever, take the time and effort to do the same.

Disappointing? Yes. Will it stop Project Gutenberg? How?

Project Gutenberg was on the iPod a week after it came out. iPhone stores have been carrying Project Gutenberg for months. We also are available, free and commercial, in other venues. Why? Because cellphones numbers already total well over 4.2 billion while computers stagnated at the billion units mark.

Disappointment? Sometimes, for example when libraries who feature CDs and DVDs of music, movies, other multimedia events, refuse to feature ebooks in exactly the same formats and physical media. There's something of a "sacred cow" about books it would appear. However, this does not stop the library patrons from bringing a collection of ebooks to the library and making copies of them upon request. This is precisely how an enormous number, in the millions, of Project Gutenberg's ebooks, have reached the public. The same applies to schools, colleges, universities, etc.

I should also mention that "Sneakernet" is still alive and well, and Project Gutenberg ebooks, as always, travel farther and wider than just the Internet, as people literally put on their sneakers and run down the street to deliver CDs and DVDs of our ebooks.

Disappointed? The question really comes down to whether you "see the glass as half full or as half empty." I certainly can bemoan the fact that hardly any major government has figured out that ebooks are the way to an educated future. However that doesn't seem to stop their citizens from warming up to ebooks on their own, without government assistance and without any mention let alone endorsement by media pundits and professionals.

As Victor Hugo said: "Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come." And: "To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."

As Michael Hart said: "Encourage The Creation And Distribution Of eBooks!" and "Break Down The Bars Of Ignorance And Illiteracy!"


Recently, copyright terms have been extended by law all over the world. Does this threaten the public domain and the production of free e-books?


The new copyright laws do more than threaten the public domain, particularly here in the U.S., where the Supreme Court decided in "Eldred v Ashcroft" (previously labeled "Hart v Reno") that the U.S. Congress could keep extending copyright ad infinitum in spite of the fact that the U.S. Constitution prescribes a time limit. I guess we are truly living in the world of post "1984" where they can say anything is official government policy no matter what is indicated by history or previous government policies.

So, what we have in the U.S. is now a virtually permanent copyright term that can and will be "legally" extended forever, will consequently never expire and never enter the public domain. It is obvious that governments not only are NOT supporting ebooks (except with "lip service"), but are actively moving to confine free ebooks to works created in antiquity and no later. This is what happens when you let publishers determine the law that governs their own copyrights.

Remember when Ted Turner "donated" a billion dollars to the U.N.? All he was doing may have been repaying the favor that extended copyrights that "earned" him billions more on his extensive library with movies such as "Gone With The Wind" [copyright 1939] which would have expired 56 years later in 1996, now will never expire. Copyright extensions are lobbied into effect by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which is a long arm of the United Nations! "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."

My own career has revolved around eBook production and distribution. . .all of it totally cost free. If I, with such meager means, can put a hundred thousand ebook titles online and have been doing it since before the dawn of the Internet, what's keeping this galaxy of organizations that SAY that "literacy and education are the highest goals" from actually DOING EBOOKS???

There are billion dollar publishing cartels which promote publishers' interests, even to the point of being incorporated into the U.N. (as in the case of WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization). This worldwide cartel of publishers is descended from centuries-old cartels whose major goal has
been the extension of copyright.

We have HUGE multinational corporations whose task is the virtual elimination of any future expiration of copyright, thus applying a stranglehold to a public domain that used to include half of everything ever published.

In the past, copyrights used to expire in a normal lifetime. Now you really can't hope for the expiration of copyright of anything you partake of as a new product. From cradle to grave, it's all copyrighted. If you take your 5 year old kid to see a new movie, that kid will have to be over 100 years old before they can legally republish it or create a derivative work. The same applies to books and music, of course. Copyright could this way used to thwart trends in music, art, movies, etc.

The last major U.S. copyright extension was in 1998, and was an issue I was preparing to testify about in Washington, DC, as I had in 1995 in the first Senate Internet hearings. However, there were some serious political events going on - and I had no idea how related they were at the time.

The copyright bill was passed, by a voice vote, meaning that no record was kept of who voted for or against. Thus, a vote of that importance was kept hidden from the public, and from myself, for weeks to come, by timing it to coincide with and so be eclipsed in the media by the bill of impeachment of President Clinton. There was no way to get anyone's attention on copyright. It was a done deal done deal before it even started. All that was left was to
determine just how badly the public should get screwed, not whether the bill would become law or not.

I am no conspiracy theorist. However, no one will deny the effect of lobbyists on legislation. The publishing industry cares not about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Project Gutenberg is just such a golden-egg laying goose. Every year we produce thousands of high-quality titles for the world to have free of charge. There are those who would prefer this to cease. They go by the motto of: "More For Me Is Better, Less For You Is Better."

It's the same kind of equation the overseers used in slavery to provide the slaves with the absolute minimum to get the work done and leave nothing for education, development, or rebellion. In so many ways members of today's middle class are reminiscent of the slaves and indentured servants of just 150 years ago: they work the most, shoulder most of the tax burden, and partake of less educational opportunities. Vacations for the American middle-class? Gone! Their entertainment? Comparable to the "Bread and Circuses" of Rome.

It's all just a game to keep you watching Big Brother so that he's not going to have to spend all that time watching you, even if it is so much easier to do so nowadays. Much of ebooks history (or, rather, non-history) has been the result of POLITICAL decision making! Other than the revolutionary thinkers at MIT, there were hardly any schools in the world willing to put their ebooks online.

I received a letter from a rather famous university president asking about putting an entire selection of his school's textbooks online. I said this was a great idea and I couldn't wait to start helping. Never heard a word from him again. Personally, I think some chancellor reminded him just how much cash
came in from selling the books, and from the publishers' support.

Do you think no country could out-compete Google? Or The Internet Archive? Or The World Public Library? Or even Project Gutenberg. . .to the point you would have never heard of any of these? Not to digitize ebooks is a POLITICAL decision!

No government WANTS a truly well read, well educated public!


You seem to have a strongly-accentuated streak of  anti-authoritarianism and a penchant for the underdog and the disenfranchised...


My anti-authoritarianism has many sources.

I grew up having witnessed the likes of Mussolini, Tojo, Stalin and Germany's big three: Hitler, Goering and Goebbels. We were all taught that we should do what our conscience dictates, not just to "follow orders." 

My own culture changed from underdog to overdog during my lifetime. I did not. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." When did ambition stop being a sin and start being a virtue? When was waterboarding transformed from a crime into a standard operating procedure in the United States? When did the United States stop being in favor of underdogs and became the overdog of the entire world?

I remember when only whites played basketball and when the color barrier was starting to go down in baseball, and when Alabama first let blacks play college football

Our educational system is discriminatory, with very little media reporting, very little legal action, very little to prevent the rich from having a rich school system and the poor from having a poor school system.

For example:

Just look at the top high schools in the U.S. and you will find four of them packed into a very small area around Bellvue, Washington, not some other area with educational prestige, such as the Boston area. You'll figure out why if you think about it in terms of where the richest person in the U.S. lives.

Even when I was growing up less than an hour's drive from there, I was the kind of person who would spend Friday night with the richest of the students in my school and Saturday night with the poorest. I never thought about it even once, until people pointed out to me that it just was not done. . .but my response was that no one can tell me whom I can associate with, period. I grew up in all white neighborhood and when the first black kid came to my junior high school, I played basketball, not terribly well, but I did, just to break the race barrier. I can tell you I got some serious flak for doing that, too.

I just believed that everyone should get an equal chance to do whatever it was that they chose to do. I'm sure some of this had something to do with being a little brother: always having to compete with someone who is bigger, faster, stronger, but I felt a person just had to play the cards they were dealt, and do the best they could with what they had.

Still, it doesn't explain why so many of the upper crust try so hard to do all they can to keep everyone else from catching up. Fear. That's what it is, nothing more. The upper crust is afraid that if the rest of the world gets a chance, many will just pass them by. And then there's the resentment that the underprivileged and the disenfranchised all over the world feel and that cannot be done away with, no matter how many new opportunities to compete and relocate they receive.

And that brings us back to education and literacy, my two major career goals for going on 38 years. Education is the doorway that leads to everything else. To me, it is education - not money - that makes me at home around the world. And it is education that the upper crust tries so hard to keep from
the lower crust. I'm not sure how many people realize this, but the upper crust actually have CLASSES on how to intimidate people with the right
handshakes, eye contact, clothing, postures, word choices, etc.

I am trying to give that same power to anyone who wants it, simply by a real attempt at "universal education" that goes beyond teaching to local kids the local mores of their society, but includes a world view, capable of allowing them entrance into any society. Screw games, and gamesmanship, and "The Skull and Bones" of our society. If you don't play those games with them, they can't lord it over you as has been their plan all along. Not succumbing to peer pressures gives you a power that scares those insiders to death simply because being an insider does not do them one damn bit of good if others aren't playing by the rules of the same game.

I have never believed in education as a competition. It's all out there, all you have to do is go get it. My mother went through all sorts of machinations to get Princeton to do me the honor of allowing me to go to school there. The truth was that I just wasn't interested in going to school in a place where
those ideas/ideals of competitive education were so strong. I just wanted to learn the substance and had no interest in the social networking aspects of school, as I never planned to get into any of that insider game playing that seems to rule the world.

Do you know that 90% of all jobs are filled by insiders who do not  get in through the normal interview process, but are friends of friends? This is something the insiders know from the very beginning, but I said that I was not interested in getting a job through connections but that I wanted a job where my real performance was the most important thing. These insiders are responsible for sinking of our "unsinkable" society, corporations, and global finance.  This is what happens when education becomes secondary and the networked social system becomes primary! It's what has happened to every aristocracy throughout history, and there is no avoiding it.

Education is the foundation of all success. Literacy is the foundation of education. My chosen career has been to provide the tools to combat illiteracy
and ignorance by promoting literacy and education on a totally free basis so that anyone and everyone will be able to teach themselves to read, and then read all they want, without any charge whatsoever. Now THAT IS a level playing field that should cause some quaking in the boots of the insiders who fear the energy of those who have been kept out of the game for our entire history.

I have always rooted for the outsider, the underdog, and ebooks should afford them a fighting chance to go toe to toe with kids who have huge school libraries to work with. To this day, I'm always outside the system rooting for those with a serious deficit in a universal educational opportunity. I want equal chances, to the extent possible, for a truly "universal education." I do all this in spite of "the trickle down theory" of education, or of economics.

Project Gutenberg is "the trickle up theory" of education. You see, these ebooks won't do anyone any good unless they actually READ THEM. Otherwise they have no value at all as they can't really be sold for money. The real power of ebooks is in the mind, and only in the mind, not
from the old fashioned perspective of the almighty dollar.

When Captain Picard, in my favorite Star Trek quotation, was asked by a zillionaire after being told that money is no longer in use: "Then what do you invest in?", he answered very quietly and powerfully: "We invest in. . .ourselves."

Just wait and see. . .OH YES. . .just wait and see when the rest of the world, over the horizon and out of sight, comes roaring up at you and a
new generation of nobodies reads better than you do, reads more than you do and leaves you in the dust.

Fair play? Better get ready to play hard! Those who never got to play before. . .they play the hardest!!!


The Internet in general and e-documents (such as e-books) in particular have the potential to revolutionize the methods and means of production in modern society. Would you care to comment?


The Gutenberg Press was the very first example of "Mass Production." Project Gutenberg was the very first example of "Neo-Mass Production." The Gutenberg Press was the first step in "The Industrial  Revolution" and it made several important contributions to it. First and foremost was the conception and implementation of the very concept of Mass Production. the Gutenberg Press was the first "Assembly Line" in which teams of workers,
working in unison, produced as many books in one day as a scriptorium, full of monks and scribes, produced in an entire year.

In addition to that, the workers did not have to hail from the most educated elite, the class of those who could read and write perfectly. People of moderate abilities could out-perform entire collectives of elitist, and very expensive, laborers.

The Gutenberg Press was also the first example of "interchangeable parts," as any letter could be exchanged with any other without upsetting the rest of the page layout. We also tend to forget Gutenberg's contributions to metallurgy and the compound leverage used to operate the machine.

Each of these features, together or separately, have created changes - huge changes - in the world that followed, changes without which our civilization could not have arisen. Our Middle Class could not have come to exist as they would still have been illiterate and uneducated. The Scientific Revolution could not have taken place without having been preceded by a revolution in literacy and education that gave rise to a class of people who could carry on the scientific conversation.

The Industrial Revolution itself, could not have taken place without the concepts of "Mass Production," "interchangeable parts", or "assembly line labor," not to mention improvements in metallurgy with the final addition of compound leverage to combine all these powerful and necessary elements into a single machinery.

In much the same way the Project Gutenberg volunteers have created the first and second generations of ebooks, with constant improvements introduced with the help of readers and new proofreaders, and programs written to ferret out potential errors without human intervention. The
Project Gutenberg library is updated with corrected editions hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, every single year.

You would not find this kind of commitment among traditional publishers of paper editions. I read editions created today of books I first read 50 years ago and I see the same errors I saw back then. This is one advantage of volunteer labor, we do the work because we love it, not because it is a paid career with our remuneration linked to cutting corners.

With these constant improvements, ebooks will eventually surpass paper in all aspects: error correction, cost/benefit ratio, space utilization, ease of looking up quotations and copying them or sending them, and, I hope, a host of other benefits we haven't even seen yet, such as being able to find similar quotations and ideas in a million other books.

Before The Gutenberg Press every manmade item was made by hand and required huge amounts of time to create. Prior to Project Gutenberg, books were created one at a time, albeit on what was thought of at the time as high-speed printing presses. Yet, compared to the speed of copying ebooks, these were laggards. This is particularly true if one takes into account the time required to transport books from place to place, not to mention the vast warehouses maintained, the large stores, etc.

The Gutenberg Press will create more books in 50 years than all the books in the annals of Mankind. Similarly, the ebook process has created more ebooks in 50 years, as we speak, than all the paper books that ever existed in all of history.

The average person owns less than 100 printed books. A bookshelf containing 100 paper tomes is still somewhat of an impressive sight in any home. Only professors and such are likely to have more p-books. Yet, anyone who spends c. $50 today on a 32 gigabyte flash drive can WEAR an entire library of 30,000 non-compressed books around his neck, or carry it on his keychain, equal to the average number of books in a typical U.S library (or, with compression, the equivalent of 2.5 U.S. libraries).

The fact that anyone can own thousands, or even millions of eBooks, is certainly a breakthrough, a "Neo-Industrial Revolution".

There are 10 million ebooks available now:

100,000 from Project Gutenberg
1,250,000 from Internet Archive
500,000 from World Public Library [$8.95 per year membership]
7,500,000 from Google

That's a total of 9,350,000 not counting Gallica or any of the other national efforts. Additionally, there are hundreds or thousands of sites around the world making available ebooks "too cheap to meter", or absolutely free. There are of about 25 million books in the public domain that are candidates for inclusion in such electronic libraries.

Even a mere 10 million ebooks, translated, by humans or computers or both into just 40% of the 250 extant languages with over a million speakers, yield a total ONE BILLION eBOOKS!!! So, obviously, we have the potential to generate more ebooks than all of the paper books that have ever existed.

What are the implications?

Continuing the comparison to the Gutenberg Press, the first change will be an abrupt rise in the rates of literacy and education among those previously deprived and underprivileged. Just as The Gutenberg Press took literacy and education out of the hands of the old elitist class and into the newly emerging "Middle Class," so too will ebooks take literacy and education out of the hands of the "developed" world and put them into the hands of anyone with an access to a phone that is text capable.

Twice as many people own such devices as do not, and the number of those without such devices is rapidly shrinking to a small minority. By 2020 nearly everyone who wants a cellphone will have one.

People will learn to read from their cellphone as it voice-renders what is on the screen. Eventually people will be literate without anyone having had to teach them to read.

Moreover, the example of Project Gutenberg giving away an assortment of books and other materials free of charge is already being emulated by
an entire generation of other sites. Why do people give things away? For some it amounts to proselytizing, just like the Bibles given away by The Gideons. Others satisfy their desire to share their favorite books, art, or music, or anything else than can be digitized. Some simply use it as a digital extension of the "vanity press".

But computer files are not the only objects that are subject to the Neo-Industrial Revolution.

The media coverage is sparse, but we have had 3-D printer capabilities for 20 years now that allow computers to "print" objects, real physical objects you can hold in your hand. Fifteen years ago I made a rather secret pilgrimage to one of these places, traveling hundreds of miles, just to see such a printer in action and to obtain a sample of such an object.

Today, there are thousands of such locations, and the equipment can be had for the price of the early IBM-AT computers, and run on your desktop. There are all sorts of 3-D printers: from those that cut out cardboard for assembly to those that create the full object all on their own.

The final example is the "RepRap" machines capable of making copies of themselves, subject only to the availability of cheap, off the shelf raw materials.

When computers are able to spew out physical objects, certain types of stores will become obsolete and certain manufacturers will be rendered non-competitive. MIT (who placed all their textbooks online) made what they call a "FabLab" or "Fabrication Laboratory" and sent out the first few of them to see how people would use them. These FabLabs have the capability of making extremely intricate and durable parts from metals to circuit boards to
all sorts of plastic models, even in customized colors.

In places like Holland, where so many people ride bicycles, they could make bicycle parts. In places such as deep in Africa where spare parts aren't available as they are in the more "developed" regions, people could print parts for daily conveniences, such as an old, no longer serviced washing machine. In addition MIT is putting one FabLab in Providence, Rhode Island to see what will happen in a more developed locale.

Back to ebooks. For now, we are still relying on the private sector", both voluntary and commercial, to produce them. It is ironic that this crucial task has ended up falling into the hands of a bunch of underfunded volunteers and has not become a national priority, replete with the kind of budgets and logistical support that countries can provide.

When I first invented ebooks back in 1971, I was sure that it would be an idea that will be picked up by all the major powers, public and private, for
the instant advancement of civilization, just as "The Gutenberg Press" was picked up by everyone around the world in no time at all. It never occurred to me that Project Gutenberg, or myself, could still be seriously involved in the creation and distribution of ebooks at such a late stage as this.

My dream is to have 10 million free ebooks translated into 100 languages, so as to create an electronic library of ONE BILLION eBOOKS that, anyone and everyone can have unbridled access to.

Even the longest journey starts with but a single step. My single step, the step that started ebooks, Project Gutenberg and my entire career, took place on the night of July 4, 1971. On July 4 of this year I hope to personally offer you TWO MILLION ebooks at this year's World eBook Fair at

Also Read:

The Second Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg's Anabasis

The Ubiquitous Project Gutenberg

Is Education a Public Good?

Revolt of the Scholars

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber

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