Saturday, March 1, 2014

The DMCA Takedown of a Feynman Lectures eBook Converter

The Feynman Lectures on Physics was one of my favorite textbooks in college. It wasn't the assigned textbook, it was recommended reading. I think the reason it doesn't work as a textbook is that every chapter is so deep that students would get sucked so far into every topic that they would never finish the course. It's the sort of book that transforms your life and way of thinking about the physical world. When I started, The Feynman Lectures was one of the first books I investigated for ungluing.

My friends at Caltech informed me that the rights situation with the Feynman Lectures was exceedingly complicated, and it would be a cold day in hell before the Feynman Lectures would be free to the world in digital form. It seems that Caltech and the book publishing world had made an awful hash of the rights, with print rights being owned by Pearson, and the audiovisual rights being owned by competing publisher Perseus. Heroic efforts by Caltech lawyer Adam Cochrane and some dedicated physicists and educators resulted in the untangling of rights, leading to a revised edition available through Perseus imprint Basic Books.

And last year, a miracle happened. An authorized free digital version of the lectures appeared on the web! There is sanity in the world! The Feynman Lectures had been unglued!

Vikram Verma, a software developer in Singapore, wanted to be able to read the lectures on his kindle. Although PDF versions can be purchased at $40 per volume, no versions are yet available in Kindle or EPUB formats. Since the digital format used by kindle is just a simplified version of html, the transformation of web pages to an ebook file is purely mechanical. So Verma proceeded to write a script to do the mechanical transformation – he accomplished the transformation in only 136 lines of ruby code, and published the script as a repository on Github.

Despite the fact that nothing remotely belonging to Perseus or Caltech had been published in Verma's repository, it seems that Perseus and/or Caltech was not happy that people could use Verma's code to easily make ebook files from the website. So they hauled out the favorite weapon of copyright trolls everywhere: a DMCA takedown.

I am not a lawyer, but I think that this use of a DMCA takedown was improper and possibly illegal. I'm pretty certain that use of Verma's script for personal use would be protected fair use in the United States, under Betamax. There are no terms of use at the Feynman Lectures website for Verma's script to violate; there wasn't even a robots exclusion. So even a legal theory that Verma's code was inducing others to violate website terms falls flat on its face.  But alas, there's no penalty for abusive DMCA takedowns, so Perseus' main downside is having to read annoying blog posts like this one. And Perseus does need to look out for their authors' rights – they probably aren't in a position to asses what some ruby code does.

Luckily, Github has a policy of publishing every DMCA takedown notice it receives, which is how I found out about Perseus' action, and Verma's counternotice. Perseus had 10 days to respond to the counter-notice and since they failed to do so, Github has re-opened the repository.

In the meantime, the Feynman Lectures website has taken some steps to break Verma's script. For example, instead of a link to (my favorite chapter), the table of contents now has a link to javascript:Goto(2,18). This will take about 10 minutes for Verma to work around. In addition, the website now has a robot exclusion (except for Googlebot).

Michael Gottlieb, the editor of The Feynman Lectures on Physics New Millennium Edition added this issue to the repo:
The online edition of The Feynman Lectures Website posted at and is free-to-read online. However, it is under copyright. The copyright notice can be found on every page: it is in the footer that your script strips out! The online edition of FLP can not be downloaded, copied or transferred for any purpose (other than reading online) without the written consent of the copyright holders (The California Institute of Technology, Michael A. Gottlieb, and Rudolf Pfeiffer), or their licensees (Basic Books). Every one of you is violating my copyright by running the script. Furthermore Github is committing contributory infringement by hosting your activities on their website. A lot of hard work and money and time went into making the online edition of FLP. It is a gift to the world - one that I personally put a great deal of effort into, and I feel you are abusing it. We posted it to benefit the many bright young people around the world who previously had no access to FLP for economic or other reasons. It isn't there to provide a source of personal copies for a bunch of programmers who can easily afford to buy the books and ebooks!! Let me tell you something: Rudi Pfeiffer and I, who have worked on FLP as unpaid volunteers for about a decade, make no money from the sale of the printed books. We earn something only on the electronic editions (though, of course, not the HTML edition you are raping, to which we give anyone access for free!), and we are planning to make MOBI editions of FLP - we are working on one right now. By publishing the script you are essentially taking bread out of my mouth and Rudi's, a retired guy, and a schoolteacher. Proud of yourselves? That's all I have to say personally. Github has received DMCA takedown notices and if this script doesn't come down pretty soon they (and very possibly you) might be hearing from some lawyers. As of Monday, this matter is in the hands of Perseus's Domestic Rights Department and Caltech's Office of The General Counsel. 
Michael A. Gottlieb
Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics New Millennium Edition

(Note: Gottlieb's description of the website copyright notice is inaccurate- it says nothing about "downloaded, copied or transferred for any purpose")

This is kind of sad. Here Caltech did the right and noble thing and made the Feynman Lectures free as a website. That they can make money from the work via sales of print and other versions is great. But having done that, trying to control what people do with the free digital version (other than sell it) is a hopeless endeavor, and they should just stop.

I was wrong. The Feynman Lectures hasn't been unglued.

Update, March 3: Verma made a one-line change to the script to un-break it. But it's not a polite script, so don't all go and run it. Better to ask Caltech to use the script to make epubs and mobi's for sale; I would certainly pay for my DRM-free copy!

Update, March 4: Gottlieb e-mailed me to say that Perseus didn't respond to the counter-notice because Github's email notice went to a spam filter, and that more takedowns would be coming. He seemed to think that I am one of the developers and warned that I have put myself "in a precarious legal position". To me clear, I am not involved in the development or publication of I hope its existence is not used as a pretext to take down or lock down the FLP website. Also, high-quality epub and mobi are on the way!

Update, March 7: Verma e-mailed me to say he is voluntarily taking down his repo:
I'm taking down my copy of the repository on Monday morning, in worry its continued availability will lead Caltech to discontinue free online access to FLP. You're each welcome to adopt maintainership if you prefer, though I would rather if you did not.
Techdirt has a post and commentary.

Update, March 10: Verma's repo is now history, but forks of it remain in 15 places, including, bizarrely, Gottlieb's own Github page
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  1. It looks like Caltech has taken down the Feynman Lectures site entirely; your link redirects to

    1. still works, though. Oh, this is so stupid, so sad!

    2. Maybe a false alarm. Both sites appear to be up.

  2. It "hasn't been unglued"? Despite the fact that the copyright holders took their property and made it freely available to everyone in the world? You're outraged that they are taking some marginal steps to preserve some control over something that they own? I am trying, but failing, to be sympathetic to your argument.

    1. Not "unglued" because from what I'm hearing, Caltech could shut down, or be forced to shut down, the website completely.

  3. Would it possible for you to post the ePubs for those that dont know how to run this script?

    1. No, that would be a clear infringement of copyright.