Hart of Gutenberg

One of the Guardian blogs recently carried the rumour that Google might buy the Opera browser. It duly noted that both Google and Opera denied any such deal, but still it ran the story. Anything that Google does is news, even when it is only copying others.

Reams have been written about Google and Yahoo’s grand plans to digitise entire libraries, but they are not likely to allow whole books to be downloaded for free. One can already do that — download the classics for free — from Project Gutenberg, the great online free library.  The Wall Street Journal caught up with the man who made it possible — Michael Hart. Unlike Project Gutenberg, however, the Wall Street Journal doesn’t give away anything for free. So thanks to Anil Dash who posted a link to the interview.

Hart, who started Project Gutenberg way back in  1971 creating electronic books for storage in bulky university computers, feels shabbily treated by Google. They approached him before going public with their project last year, he said, but then “they sort of talked us out the door”. “It’s not that we don’t want to work with them. Google didn’t want to have anything to do with us,” he said.

Project Gutenberg is different from what Google is doing, he added. “From the consumer’s point of view, if you’re trying to get a quotation from a book, you could get the book from Project Gutenberg and cut and paste, say, the whole “Hamlet” soliloquy. On Google, you can’t. Also, ours is totally non-commercial. You won’t find advertising on any of our pages.” 

Hart feels overshadowed by Google. “Google certainly got a billion dollars worth of publicity last December(when it announced its plans to digitise books). I think we should have at least been mentioned. If you watched the whole media explosion, Project Gutenberg wasn’t even mentioned. Anybody watching that would think that Google had just invented e-books.”

It’s all so true. But people know where to go for free books.

“In a typical week, there are at least a million downloads,” he said. “We get a lot of Thackeray downloads, a lot of James Joyce, a lot of Dickens. Pride and Prejudice is always up there. Sherlock Holmes is always up there.”

As for his favourite authors, “Alice in Wonderland was a family classic for us, and my dad was a Shakespeare professor. I do love Shakespeare.”

Enough quoted from the Wall Street Journal interview. The picture incidentally is from Hart’s own home page.

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