“When in the course of human events…” sometimes a little text file can be immensely transformative.

Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1971, Michael S. Hart, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois, was given an operator’s account to the University’s Xerox Sigma V mainframe and thereby access to the ARPANET. He was also given the freedom to do whatever he wanted with his “spare time” on the network.  At the time, access to computing power and the computing cycles and the network were extremely valuable (he [probably over-]estimated it at $100,000,000), and very limited. For example, in April of 1971, there were only 15 nodes and 23 host terminals on the network and it would be a further 5 years before the number of nodes hit 63. Recognizing the scarcity and value of the tools he now had access to use, he thought to “do something extremely worthwhile to do justice with [the computer time he] had been given”, by trying to create something of lasting value.  Hart then typed up the text of a copy of the Declaration of Independence he had been given earlier that day at a grocery store and sought to distribute the file. He initially thought to email the file to everyone on the network (he narrowly missed being a pioneer in spam!), but the system prevented him from doing so. Instead, Hart posted the text file on the network and thereby launched what was to become Project Gutenberg.

Birthday Cake
Happy Birthday eBooks! Photo: James Petts from London, England, CC BY-SA 2.0

With that file, a new age of digital books was launched. In the past 50 years, Project Gutenberg has grown to include more than 60,000 works all freely available in plain text. While this is a stunning achievement for a simple volunteer effort with less than $60,000 in organizational income per year, Project Gutenberg is hardly the world’s largest free book repository. The Internet Archive, by comparison contains some 2.3 million texts. HathiTrust contains 8,415,795 book titles.

Certainly, Hart wasn’t the first to conceive of digital content, nor was he the first to post files for people to read. The difference was that he posted files for the pleasure of reading and for the value of sharing knowledge, not because it had a purpose per se.  What he posted wasn’t a report, or data tables, or defense analysis, which were the primary purpose of the ARPANET at the time. Sharing content that most people could easily get access to in print form, wasn’t perceived as a valuable activity to anyone other than Hart.

The power of Project Gutenberg has been not simply its role as a repository for digital texts. It has been a significant exemplar of the value of public domain works online. One of Hart’s goals with Project Gutenberg was “to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books” and make them freely available to internet users, thereby “help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy.”  He viewed e-books as a form of replicator (using the term from Star Trek) technology that could, in the future, allow for the infinite reproduction of words, ushering in an age of intellectual abundance. He was also a fierce advocate for the potential of freely shared information. When Hart posted the first file, the term of copyright protection was 28 years, with the possibility to secure an additional 28 years, for a maximum 56 years of copyright protection. A few years after the Declaration of Independence was posted online, and while there were only a handful of Project Gutenberg texts online, the term of copyright in the United States was extended to “a term consisting of the life of the author and fifty years after the author’s death” in 1976. It was subsequently extended even further to 75 years after the author’s death (or 75 years in the case of corporate authorship) because of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. It wasn’t until January 2019 that the United States stepped out of a “public domain freeze” during which content was “protected” from entering the public domain for an additional 20 years because of the 1998 law.

While people like Michael Hart saw the potential to utilize the power of digital files and the network to share content, others particularly those in the corporate world sought to aggressively maintain their hold on copyrighted materials, pushing the boundaries of what could be reasonably understood as “for limited Times”.  Because of his efforts to promote the use of public domain works, Lawrence Lessig initially considered Hart as one of the plaintiffs in his failed effort to overturn the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, which culminated in the 2003 Eldred v. Ashcroft Supreme Court Case. Ironically, while Project Gutenberg sought to expand access to freely available content, the opposite occurred for nearly half of the past 50 years.

Sadly, Michael Hart didn’t live to see his vision flourish. He passed away in September, 2011 at the age of 64, just past the fortieth anniversary of the project he started. While content might not be as freely available as Hart envisioned, the implications of the small file he posted just over 50 years ago continue to reverberate through the ages. It wasn’t just that the network could provide a means to share information, but that we could enjoy that content, and that the information shared could be freely available. Even this small missive would not have been possible in quite the same way without Hart’s vision. Cheers to you, ebooks! You’re looking great at the start of your second half century!

Todd A Carpenter

Todd A Carpenter

Todd Carpenter is Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). He additionally serves in a variety of leadership roles of a variety of organizations, including the ISO Technical Subcommittee on Identification & Description (ISO TC46/SC9), the Linked Content Coalition, and the Foundation of the Baltimore County Public Library.


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