The Father of the eBook Is Dead

Michael Hart invented the ebook. The idea that gave the Kindle a reason to exist, has helped float the iPad to its peak, and is currently killing bookstores. But before all that, he just wanted books to be $0.00.

There's a good chance you've used Project Gutenberg, one of the internet's great treasures. Among its 37,000 free texts, available in a multitude of languages, all for free, are some of humankind's greatest written works. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, the Declaration of Independence—all for free. It's an incredible, if somewhat dated looking resource.

It wonder what Hart, who died Tuesday at 64, would think of his creation. Ebooks are now an enormously lucrative commodity—enough to put expensive pieces of plastic into eager hands. But that seems to run a bit contrary to Project Gutenberg's ethos, that words should be available to anyone for no charge. Of course, Gutenberg's collection is all public domain stuff, and a lot of things flying into Kindles isn't.

Project Gutenberg, in its obituary for Hart, seems to have a decisive opinion on the question:

The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

But whether that's what Hart wanted or not, digitized text has become about a lot more than knowledge and opportunity. [Project Gutenberg]