An Interview with Michael Hart

by Andrea Kobeskzo on November 6, 2009

An Interview with Michael Hart

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Michael Hart, former editor and founder of Project Gutenberg. In our interview, Michael discusses the future of PG, and looks back on how it has evolved through changing times.

So why are you passing the editor torch?

This isn’t the first time. It’s mostly to get PG used to not depending on me so much. I have tried as hard as I dare, not to be a central figure by voicing my own opinions other than to balance others. I don’t really mind doing the Newsletter, but I like to see more other points of view, styles, perspectives, interest, etc.

Project Gutenberg has had a long and tumultuous road. How do you feel the face of PG has changed or evolved through the years?

Believe it or not, I never thought of it as tumultuous. Yes, there were a few years of hard times, but that’s my life’s story, but since I never let us get addicted to money it never made a difference when there wasn’t any.

How has PG evolved?

Well, from 1971 to 1988-89 no one paid any attention so it was just me with tilting at windmills, but I knew eBooks and eLibraries should be two of the great wonders of an entirely new world, so I was never tempted to give up–never. I just had to wait for the world to catch up.

Believe it or not people were still saying eBooks were never going to make it just a few years ago. Look for a quote in the Wall St. Journal: “Ebooks are never going to make it.” Before that the NY Times: look for: “twitchy” screen. However now that it’s obvious they are moving eBooks on their own, but I can’t tell how serious they are. They may just be following the rule of simple reporting: “Follow The Money.” If eBooks fall flat will they all just move on and pretend there was never any interest?

The first goal of PG was just to prove eBooks feasible. My own estimations were that it would take about 10,000, and that seems to have proved correct as Google called me in to advise them ASAP after we hit 10,000, and we went to do just that on December 14, 2003: and they announced they had invented eBooks and eLibraries December 14, 2004. However, they did the opposite, or rather exact opposite of what I said they should do and look what happened. Most of the big legal fray is because they were more money oriented, and as such may have intentionally played the copyright cards that got them in the big legal hassles. If they had started out by emphasizing the public domain it probably would have worked out a lot better for them in the press as the good will they would have built up would have gone a long way.

Personally, I am OK with nearly any eBook format that is compact and search quote friendly.

You’ve achieved a lot toward the cause of digitizing public works. Do you feel that one achievement stands out above the rest?

One thing was just keeping such a vastly different bunch of diverse persons working more or less together for so long… This was pretty much that first example of what is now so popular, international virtual cooperation.

One of my personal favorites was doing our 100th eBook: The Complete Works of Shakespeare… I will probably always remember that all nighter, as we finished up months of very intense work to do it on time.

Another favorite was doing our own translation of Siddhartha, then fighting off Hermann Hesse’s copyright lawyers!!!

Where do you see Project Gutenberg in ten years? In twenty?

By 2020 we will be buying petabyte drives, not terabytes. We’ll have enough space to hold a billion eBooks of a million characters. Yes, they will pass more laws against it. In fact we are working on publicizing the next one already. The biggest tragedy was Larry Lessig at The Supreme Court. Look that one up, find out who he represented before Eldred.

By 2030 a billion eBooks…here is how it would/could/should happen:

10 million public domain eBooks free on the Net…that’s 40% of them. [Just ask any information professional…there are ~25 million]

100 languages…that’s 40% of those with over a million speakers. [Just ask any languages professional]

10 million eBooks translated into 100 different languages equals: ONE BILLION eBOOKS.

Common people will be able to buy a petabyte drive to put it on in 2020, just as we now buy terabyte drives that hold a million eBooks.

The laws will be tested as it becomes more and more obvious that there is no longer any copyright expiration…ever…permanent copyright!

It will cost more than Iraq, more than Wall St. Each 20 years of copyright extension removes a million public domain books, not to mention newspapers, magazines, music, movies, etc., etc., etc. If you count a lifetime of access to one of those million books worth $.01, then think how much it costs 300 million people to lose a million books each, as public domain, for their entire lifetimes.

The powers that be don’t want a very literate well educated public. Did you ever watch Roots? Remember the slave who went to Harvard Law School??

I’m afraid that the following catch phrase will take on ever more meaning:

“The Information Age: For Whom? Only Those Who Can Pay For It?”

The goal of Project Gutenberg has always been to create “An Information Age” not as something on the order of “The Digital Divide,” but something greater in terms of bringing literacy and education to the masses free of all charge and in a way the vast majority can access instantly.

To this end my current goals are ever increasing cellphone accessibility and translation into more languages. WARNING: Get a phone with Wi-Fi or else the cost factor will enter into the equation, and use free Wi-Fi, of course.

There are already ~4.5 billion active cellphones, with about 1.2 billion new ones being sold every year. Soon nearly everyone who wants one will have it and more and more of them will be suitable for eBooks…just go to bottoms of the pages when you locate books at and you should see the last sections is all eBook formats. The last is the newest and it’s quite a hit: try QiOO and let me know how you like it. Don’t forget to try the white on black reading feature, easy on the eyes.

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Michael Pastore November 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm

More than twenty-five years before Brewster Kahle coined the guiding
principle of his Internet Archive, “Universal access to all
knowledge,” Michael Hart was putting this ideal into practice with
Project Gutenberg. Hart has worked diligently to promote ebooks and
epublishing since 1971, for almost 40 years!

In September 2009 I worked with Michael, on the latest edition of my
book. Hart’s knowledge, generosity, and sense of humor made this
collaboration a pure pleasure. Above all, he is passionately committed
to sharing the world’s knowledge.

He has been called “the inventor of ebooks”, and “the grandfather of
electronic publishing.” I am proud to be one his countless
grandchildren. Forty years ago, Hart dreamed an impossible dream, and
thanks to that, we are all reading ebooks today.

Michael Pastore
50 Benefits of Ebooks

Bia April 22, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Why are you so worried about how many people are reading ebooks and in how many languages. It is like you are sorry about a good thing. For me ebooks don’t make it because my eyes get dry after only few pages & they hurt me. It is the brightness I think that is the pb. vs. regular pages in a book. I wish they could just have books already downloaded at the library/photo shop that can be printed on the spot (library or digital photo stores).

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