For most of the world’s 2 billion Internet users illiteracy isn’t a daily concern; for 20% of the world’s adults it’s, quite simply, a way of life. This is why when Michael S Hart set-up the world’s first digital library, Project Gutenberg, in 1971, he felt providing free access to the world’s seminal literature was an important step on the road to universal literacy. The project took on the slogan to “Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy” and with over 30,000 books currently available its gone along way to giving more people access to literature than ever before.
As a US-based organisation Project Gutenberg relies on US copyright laws, allowing books to be freely published once they enter the Public Domain, which, depending on a book’s publication date, can vary from 28 years after publication through to 70 years after the author’s death. Since laws are jurisdictional, for an Internet user it might or might not be legal to possess a book published by Project Gutenberg depending on the user’s local copyright laws. Coupling jurisdictional copyright differences with the shifting demands of consumers, producers, and prosumers, and the world of digital copyright laws are evolving quicker than most legislators can keep up with, making the legal status of each of Gutenberg’s books harder for readers to ascertain with the passage of time.
Therefore, even although Project Gutenberg contains the largest digital library of freely downloadable literature, the price of entry is no longer literacy but is now cross-jurisdictional legal literacy. So while Michael S Hart and his cohorts continue to grow their library and lower the bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy, they do so by making legal literacy, quite simply, a way of digital life.