Thursday, March 09, 2006

Interview with Michael Hart

Today I am publishing an interview with Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitise, archive, and distribute cultural works, primarily the full texts of public domain books. Founded in 1971, it is the oldest digital library in the world, and currently offers 17,000 freely downloadable e-texts.

This is the first of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details), which I am publishing under a Creative Commons licence.

Sadly, on Tuesday 6th September 2011 Michael Hart was found dead at his home in Urbana, Ill. He was 64. The New York Times obituary is available here.

Michael Hart

Preserving the Public Domain
An interview with Michael Hart, creator of Project Gutenberg

Michael Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington, USA, in 1947. His mother, who had earned three degrees before turning 18 and was a cryptanalyst during WWII, was business manager for "the chicest women's store" in the town; his father was an accountant.

When Hart was eleven his parents both decided to retrain as university professors, and the family moved to Urbana, Illinois, where Hart lives today. Even before entering high school Hart himself had regularly attended lectures at the University of Illinois. "I found nothing I couldn’t understand," he says, "so long as jargon wasn’t an issue."

When Hart went to University in his own right he completed a four-year "individual plan of study" program in two years, obtaining a degree in Human-Machine Interfaces.

However, it was when — on 4th July 1971— that Hart was given an account on the University of Illinois mainframe that he found his true métier. Casting around for a worthwhile cause with which to use the computer time he had been given, and conscious that the computer was connected to the nascent Internet, he decided to type the US Declaration of Independence into the computer — a faux parchment copy of which he had just been given at his local grocery store to mark Independence Day.

Immediately seeing the potential of the network as a revolutionary new medium for distributing information, Hart was soon typing in entire books, including the Bible, all of Shakespeare, and Alice in Wonderland. Thus was born Project Gutenberg — a project that rapidly turned into an ambitious scheme to make electronic copies of 10,000 out-of-copyright books freely available on the Internet. Hart's mission: "to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy."

In retrospect Project Gutenberg was both prescient and revolutionary. In effect, Hart had become the first "information provider" twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and at a time when there were, says Hart, just 100 people on the network. Indeed, what was to become the Internet was then viewed as little more than a powerful mechanism for crunching data — not a publishing platform.

But for 17 years Hart had to plough a solitary furrow. Widely dismissed as "that crazy guy who wants to put Shakespeare in a computer" he had by 1997 input only 313 books. In 1998, however, he had a breakthrough. Linking up with the University of Illinois PC User Group, Hart set up a mailing list and started publicising his project. Soon he had recruited a team of volunteers to help, and by the end of that year 1,600 books had been keyed in. For his efforts Hart was honoured as one of the "Wired 25" in the November 1998 issue of Wired magazine.

Since then the number of volunteers has grown from tens, to hundreds, to thousands, and today Project Gutenberg offers over 17,000 e-texts, all of which can be freely downloaded in a wide variety of formats. In addition, there are now national Project Gutenbergs in Australia, Germany, Portugal, Canada and the Philippines, and plans are under way to create local projects in Africa, Asia, and other regions too.

New obstacles were to arise however: while copyright had always posed a challenge for Hart, the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act — extending US copyright by a further 20 years — removed one million potential eBooks from the public domain in one fell swoop. With copyright now averaging 95.5 years, and creators no longer needing to register their copyright, Hart began to fear that the public domain could disappear all together, undermining the raison d’être of what by then had become his life's mission.

When, therefore, opponents of the Sonny Bono Act decided to mount a legal challenge to the new law, Hart was the natural plaintiff. But Lawrence Lessig — the Stanford Law School professor who argued the case — refused to allow Hart to attach an appendix to the court documents expressing his personal views on the plundering of the public domain, so Hart walked away from the case, unprepared to be just a figurehead. His place was taken by Eric Eldred, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court as Eldred v. Ashcroft, only to fall at the last hurdle.

However, with an unshakeable faith in the importance of what he is doing, and calculating that 9 million books will nevertheless enter the public domain by 2020, Hart set a new mission for Project Gutenberg: to make 10 million eBooks available in 100 languages.

For Hart the stakes are high, since he views Project Gutenberg as more than just the first and largest distributor of public domain eBooks. In addition, he argues, it is a primitive example of a "replicator" (a reference to a Star Trek machine envisaged as being capable of copying any inanimate matter by rearranging subatomic particles), and so therefore also a "lever to the Neo-Industrial Revolution."

Hart believes that in the future a powerful new breed of replicators — which will include 3D printers and nano assembly tools — will be able to produce and copy physical objects as easily and cheaply as it is currently possible to make and copy electronic books and other types of digital information. This, he says will enable a new "unlimited distribution" model that will eradicate scarcity and usher in a neo-industrial revolution, benefiting mankind as radically as did the first industrial revolution.

The danger, he cautions, is that to protect vested interests, governments and large corporations will seek to artificially maintain today's limited distribution mode, making the current controversy over the ownership of digital information and the Internet a mere dress rehearsal for a more profound struggle. In short, if the battle over intellectual property and the public domain is lost, says Hart, it will set an ominous precedent for the future.

Many are quick to characterise Hart as an eccentric. While rejecting that term, Hart agrees to "not being like anyone else I've ever met". Certainly he has an unusual take on the world — a characteristic that when Hart graduated led an assistant dean at the University of Illinois to comment: "Like many young men who are brilliant, there is always the danger of [Hart] being misunderstood as simply eccentric." For that reason, he added, Hart should be "given the opportunity to pursue courses of action which might at first seem somewhat bizarre."

For its first 17 years Project Gutenberg was indeed viewed as a "somewhat bizarre" enterprise. Today, however, it is widely recognised as the first and most concerted attempt to preserve the public domain in the digital age.

Above all, however, Project Gutenberg is testimony to the determination of Hart, a man not easily deflected from his target. As his long-time friend Sue DeVries puts it: "Michael is absolutely brave, in the bone-deep sense, which makes him able to keep to a chosen path when others might find a task too daunting. He does not change his opinion or feelings with public opinion or outside pressure. He is also very funny, delights in all kinds of things, and has a great laugh."

As I discovered, Hart is also a challenging person to interview. Having a conversation with him is — as he himself puts it — like "herding cats". Nearly every question asked of him exploded into a series of related and more complex questions, and then bounced back to me. Since Hart's preferred mode of communication is e-mail, my inbox was soon throbbing with hundreds of messages; and when he eventually agreed to a telephone conversation he insisted that I turn off the tape recorder, leaving me desperately scribbling on a cascade of loose sheets of paper that constantly fell to the floor!

He also seems to be a man whose attention can quickly stray. After the hectic flurry of e-mails, and the phone conversation, I found it increasingly difficult to get Hart to respond to my requests for clarification of points he had made: his constantly active mind appeared to have wandered off — presumably to new schemes and ideas; and no doubt to more interesting questions from importunate journalists!

But eventually the interview was finished. What it reveals is a man whose whole life has clearly been dedicated to defending the public domain, but who is sometimes a little hard to fathom.


If you wish to read the interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me. Likewise, if they chose not to contribute, that would be fine too. Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews project.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.


Jenny said...

You've captured Michael beautifully. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

I should add that the interviewer just lagged for so long that I
thought the interview was over, then, too long after, waited for
me to replied to the reasking of questions already answered.

Sorry, but that's one of my pet peeves, someone who asked query,
after query, after query, without changing the questions.

I would just give the same or similar answers again.

As long as I'm commenting, I should add, that a few of the dates
are perhaps typos off by a digit in the ones or tens column, but
nothing that would change the general meaning, which is fine.

As of the present, Project Gutenberg has about 100,000 eBooks in
a wide number of various formats and languages, always looking a
bit further to add more.

I predict that in the coming year there will be a million ebooks,
not just the awful ones we have come to expect far too much, from
the usual suspects, but much better ebooks from sources we do not
currently think of along with Google and Internet Archive, but we
will think of these new sources. . .take my word for it!

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg,
Inventor of eBooks