Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Ebook Turns 50

On July 4, 1971, Michael Hart made the text of the Declaration of Independence available on arpanet (which is now the Internet), using the gopher protocol (look it up). Although books in digital form certainly existed before that, many of us regard the beginning of Project Gutenberg as the birth of the ebook. There were computer-readable books on magnetic disks, punch cards and the like, but the revolutionary element of Project Gutenberg was the distribution method. Printed books, after all, are a digital media, it just that the bits are embodied by the presence or absence of ink rather than electrons on a transistor gate. Sending the bits over a wire or a fiber is what puts the 'e' in ebook.

The birth of the ebook was a political event as much as a technical achievement. The choice of the "Declaration of Independence of the United States" as etext #1 couldn't have been solely an expression of patriotic fervor. Rather, I think it was a manifestation of the radical belief that everyone should have access to the printed word, without having to pay for the privilege. (Yes, libraries are radical in this way, too!).

As Thomas Jefferson put it:

... it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.

In the context of 1971, the "bands" that needed dissolving were expensive services such as Dialog. The idea that users had to pay Dialog per word to read the Declaration mush have been galling to Hart. (Let's overlook the fact that he and other denizens of the 1971 arpanet got their access for "free" because someone else was paying.) Books are things in their own right; stripping ebooks of their "bands" to a single device or service is what put the "book" into ebook.

Although Project Gutenberg is now delivering about 50 million ebooks a year, about 2% of global ebook unit sales, until at least 2009 it delivered the majority of the world's ebooks. Today, that position has been taken by Amazon's Kindle. Just as the United States can't ignore the ideals that led to its founding, the stakeholders of the ebook ecosystem- authors, publishers, distributors, libraries, and readers, all of us need to remember that the ebook was born out of a desire for freedom.

Note: Though I've been helping Project Gutenberg modernize its technology, I don't speak for them in any way, though I am certainly in awe of what they've achieved! If you'd like to support my work advancing freedom for ebooks, consider a donation to the Free Ebook Foundation.