Libraries reading into the future

Libraries reading into the future

First, there was free, downloadable music, but record companies found a way to fight – and eventually commercialize – by offering downloadable music at roughly the cost of an album.

Then, there were free, downloadable movies, but major movie studios found a way to combat the move, reminding moviegoers that it is not only against the law, but immoral.

Now, the Internet has produced another up-and-coming free media maverick, but this time, with few copyright violations to worry about by way of providing more than 300,000 books.

Beginning July 4, the Illinois-based Project Gutenberg will launch a month of free book distribution on its World eBook Fair Web site (www.worldebookfair.com). Although the site will not begin operating until then, organizers are claiming to have one-third of a million titles available, with hopes to reach one million by 2009.

Just as the Gutenberg Press was “revolutionary” in the book world by providing more books in its first 50 years than what had previously existed, so, too, will e-books provide the same kind of “revolution in how many books reach the public,” said Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart.

“It is very likely … that this e-book revolution will create more copies of more books in 50 years than existed in an entire previous history of publishing,” he said.

Starting in 1971 with the Declaration of Independence, the team of volunteers behind Project Gutenberg began its endeavor to scan as many books as possible, long before the Internet was accessible to home users.

As a student at the University of Illinois, Hart was given space on the university’s mainframe computer. Obsessed with the idea of combining media, he began typing books and downloading them to the mainframe. When the Internet became popular, the current project was born.

Hart said he has always been interested in putting books on the Internet, and said he has probably written a paper about any topic associated with e-books.

Like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Hart’s project relies on a core of tens of thousands of committed volunteers based throughout the world to do a majority of the scanning. The books are uploaded to a database from the individual users, where they are then proofread and placed on the Internet.

“Our most recent big donor is from the Island of Malta,” Hart said. “I just got a text message from someone in the Serengeti thanking me for the books.”

Stanford University is also doing its part by using a robot about the size of an SUV to scan its library as part of a partnership with Google, The New York Times reported in May. The robot is capable of scanning 1,000 books per hour.

Despite a slower pace of scanning, Hart said Project Gutenberg benefits from the more efficient proofreading of human eyes, as well as the ability to dodge copyright infringement – which has marked the end of other free, downloadable media projects.

The works available on Project Gutenberg are past copyright, meaning no one currently owns their rights.

As a result, Project Gutenberg is doing everything “by the book,” according to Stacey Dogan, a Northeastern law professor who specializes in copyright law.

“This isn’t to say that all books’ copyrights have expired, just the ones they’re making available on the service,” Dogan said in an e-mail. “So you won’t see very many recent novels.”

Copyright expiration stems from a 1978 law that changed regulations. For works produced after the law, copyright was granted to published works for the life term of the author, plus an additional 75 years. Before the law, regulations were less stringent.

A small percentage of Project Gutenberg’s books were written by recent authors and have been placed online with their permission, Hart said.

As a whole, the e-book industry has drawn some criticism. For instance, Google’s plan to scan the entire contents of libraries at five major universities, in an effort to make their works searchable has attracted criticism from publishers because works from those libraries are still protected by copyright.

For now, e-books are slowly making their way into libraries, but use is limited to studying purposes, said Northeastern Dean of Libraries Edward Warro.

Warro said Northeastern libraries have purchased e-books that are copyrighted and, like the rest of the library’s contents, can only be accessed with proper identification.

“We do have some e-books,” Warro said. “They’re very good when you need a quick look-up to find specific pieces of information. An almanac would be a perfect e-book.”

University libraries have also switched to e-books for things like computer manuals, whose often-updated catalogue takes up multitudes of valuable shelf space, Warro said.

Despite the changes, he said there is no sign of e-books soon replacing their printed counterpart.

On the other hand, Hart said that industry statistics point in a different direction.

Hart said the increasingly convenient technology is a sign that e-books will grow. The ability to load 10 libraries worth of material onto 10 DVDs is to its credit, he said, adding that e-books will also be important for the preservation of physical books.

“Literally 10 minutes after you put that book on the Internet, it’s never going to disappear,” he said.

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