‘Anyone can create an e-book’

World Copyright Day (April 23) is a good time to remember Michael Stern Hart and his revolutionary invention: the e-book. Excerpts from one of the last interviews that Hart gave before his death in 2011.

April 20, 2013 04:30 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST

Changing the way the world reads: Michael Hart.

Changing the way the world reads: Michael Hart.

Today, e-books have become so popular that some believe they might even replace the printed version. But has anyone wondered how they began? The person behind this innovation was Michael Stern Hart, who at the age of 25, invented the e-book in 1971.

He didn’t stop with that. He went on to ensure that billions of e-books in various languages were made freely available to anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection through Project Gutenberg, fondly referred to as PG by many.

Michael Hart died on September 6, 2011 at the age of 64 but his vision is coming true faster than anyone can even imagine. Thanks to him, self publishing is possible and anyone can be an author if they choose to put their mind to it. More importantly, free eBooks, films, games and music are widely available.

Who thought of Project Gutenberg?

I did. It began serendipitously as my brother’s best friend was a mainframe operator. I hung out with him for air-conditioned comfort to do my homework and learned how to run it. The Internet was brand new to us. I asked if anyone had put an initial permanent statement. The answer was no so I said “WE should!” I found The Declaration of Independence in my backpack. The light, as they say, went off over my head.

When did you branch out to audio books, videos, and films?

Little by little; there was no concerted effort. I will try nearly anything and everything. You didn’t mention music…

The free download of numerous titles, audios, videos, and feature films marked your 35th anniversary celebration in 2006 but didn’t PG always offer free downloads?

All files are free downloads, though there are sponsors. You can buy something from them, though you’d probably have to go off the Website to do it.

Your slogan is “Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy”. However, with so few people in the world having computer and internet access, how do you believe this is possible?

You consider a billion people to be “so few”? And that’s just Internet accounts. What about the billions of cell phones? And there are a billion NEW cell phones made each year, not to mention iPods, PDA’s PPC’s, etc. I predict that cell phones will provide as many e-book reading experiences as computers.

As for those who cannot read?

What better way to learn than to have your device read aloud to you while the words are on the screen? E-books will change the world, and the literacy rate, as much as The Guttenberg Press did half a millennium ago. Mark my words! And that change was greater than you might think, given the roots of the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. I think we are in for some BIG changes.

How do you protect the intellectual property rights of authors and also create free eBooks?

Most of our works are public domain; a few are done with permission.

Would you get into e-book publishing of new authors?

I am not sure I want to get into commercial e-book publishing, just not my thing, though our patrons ask for newer books, so there is obviously a demand ...we’ll see.

Do you think the library of the future will be virtual?

Before The Guttenberg Press, the average person owned 0 books. Before Project Gutenberg, the average person owned 0 libraries. What the brick and mortar libraries do is too often based on politics; otherwise you would be talking to them, and not to me. Any major library, or even minor one for that matter, could have spent just one per cent of their budget over the last 35 years and done far more than I have done. The fact is that they don’t WANT to give away free books They believe in a civilisation based on “Limited Distribution”. But the Internet began on a model of “Unlimited Distribution”. Anyone can create an e-book in a day, week, month, etc., and when they are done, they can, if they like, make it available to a billion people without the crowds and hoopla of a “Harry Potter” release event, and without the billions of dollars. So we do.

You read Google’s press releases all the time in the media, yet what would happen if you tried to download 100,000 books from them as you may do from Project Gutenberg every day? They get the press because they have $100+ billion, not because they actually have that many people in the world with their e-books on the screen.

How do you see Project Gutenberg 20 years from now?

I predict the next big thing will be “Machine Translation”, and that there will be over 10 million e-books freely available, and that these will come out in translations in over 100 languages, for a total of a billion books, all free for the asking, unless someone manages to take over e-books. If we can give those billion e-books to a billion people, which would be ONE QUINTILLION e-books GIVEN AWAY. No reason we can’t, if things continue as they have for Project Gutenberg.

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