Project Gutenberg

One project of great merit definitely deserves to be mentioned here for its archive of free literature. Project Gutenberg has on its server electronic versions of almost all the classics of world literature available for free distribution.1

Unlike in the computer business, which is still very young, a large number of famous works of literature are freely available for copying, publishing, and for distribution over the Internet because they have passed the time limit built into the copyright laws of various countries. Copyright protection lasts a specific number of years following the death of the author or creator of a work, after which it enters the public domain. The protected period of copyright varies from country to country and with the type of work it is, but it the usual period, depending on the country, is usually 50 or 70 years from the death of the creator of the work, or from the date of publication if it was published posthumously.2

Since there aren't many programmers who have died over a hundred years ago, the period of copyright is not something that has affected the development of computer programs, such as Linux.3 But the situation with literature is quite different. Despite the extension of the copyright period, most of the literary classics are already in the public domain, which allows the Gutenberg archives to offer an extensive library of e-books, ranging from the philosophers of antiquity and various translations of the Bible, through Shakespeare's plays and Moby Dick, to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Project Gutenberg was begun by Michael Hart as early as 1971, which as e-programs go makes it a really old one. At roughly the same time the UNIX operating system and the C programming language were taking their first tentative steps. It is actually quite amazing that there was even a computer for Michael to use for his project at this early stage. However, the University of Illinois had a computer, and Michael was one of the people to whom the university endowed some computer time.

The other people using the computer at the time mostly did very elementary work on it, such as programming a programming language. That's a bit like making the hammer which will eventually be wielded to make the scaffolding used to build the walls of a house, and only when the house is finished, will others finally get to decorate and furnish it - all quite comparable to cave dwellers discovering fire.

However, Michael Hart didn't want to get involved in such projects, and tried to come up with something else to do with his computer time. After all, at the time this was a resource that would have cost $100 million to buy! You couldn't exactly leave it unused.

Having thought about it for an hour and 47 minutes - so it is said - Michael Hart predicted that the greatest future value of computers would not be their calculating capabilities, but in storing information and in the unlimited distribution and search for information. Not a bad guess! Thus began Project Gutenberg, and the first information stored by Michael was the US Declaration of Independence, which being a public document was common property; that is, in the public domain.

The Declaration of Independence may not qualify for a place in the top ten of Western literature - particularly for non-Americans like myself - but it was more than nationalistic pride that made Michael Hart choose that particular text. There were actually some very practical concerns: it was suitably short, which meant it would fit it on the disks available in 1971. The time for storing the whole of Moby Dick and the Bible came later, as the technology developed.

By 2003, the Gutenberg archives included more than 10,000 e-books, which were published on a 4 gigabyte DVD to celebrate the achievement. The present aim of the project is to reach a million free e-books by the year 2015. Despite its modest beginnings, Project Gutenberg has shown what resources can be found in being free and by using volunteers.4 The project's history also reminds us that the current boom in Open Source thinking isn't really anything new. As Richard Stallman keeps telling those younger than himself, the entire IT business was Open Source in the 1970s. The change to a more closed world came later. The same goes for e-books. Michael Hart was doing it in the 1970s, but it was the twenty-first century before Stephen King tried it.

  1. 1.
  2. 2. Here, the reader may like to know of a twist in the tale. Originally, the copyright period covered a considerably shorter length of time; in the US, for instance, the period was a measly 14 years. Mysteriously, that period has been extended to its current multi-generational length. Interestingly, new laws have been passed to prolong the period of copyright whenever the copyright for Mickey Mouse (first published in 1928) is close to expiring. Without the latest 20-year extension in 1998, Mickey would have entered the public domain in 2003.,1283,17327,00.html
  3. 3. Apparently, there are a total of three programmers who died over a hundred years ago: Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), the Frenchman who invented a programmable loom in 1801 (; Charles Babbage (1791-1871) (, an Englishman who designed a "difference engine' and an "analytical engine', also in the nineteenth century; and his friend Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) (, who wrote programs for the analytical engine, despite it never being built. Other nineteenth century mathematicians mulled over the creation of a programmable computer, but these three are typically cited whenever the prehistory of computers is mentioned.
  4. 4. Sources: and

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 Open Trends nieuwsselectie 9 September 2011 » Open Trends's picture


[...] Project Gutenberg | [...]

Anonymous friend's picture

Footnote 1 URL should be is an empty page.

hingo's picture

Thanks for the heads up. I

Thanks for the heads up. I wonder if .net ever worked or if it's a typo in the book.

In any case, has published an obituary for Prof Hart:

Why Making Money from Free Software Matters (Glyn Moody) | O's picture


[...] examples of the tremendous potential seen in Wikipedia, or the fan translations of Harry Potter or Project Gutenberg, the examples of successfully commercializing on open content boils down essentially to John [...]

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