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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 11/30/2010

Amazon charges Kindle users for free Project Gutenberg e-books

By Rob Pegoraro

Kindle readers, take note: You may have been paying for books you could legally download for free--in nearly identical editions--elsewhere.

The titles in question aren't just public-domain books that have long been freely available at such sites as Project Gutenberg. They appear to be the exact Gutenberg files, save only for minor formatting adjustments and the removal of that volunteer-run site's license information.


Gutenberg contributor Linda M. Everhart complained in an e-mail in late October that Amazon was selling a title she'd contributed to Gutenberg, Arthur Robert Harding's 1906 opus "Fox Trapping," for $4.

"They took the text version, stripped off the headers and footer containing the license, re-wrapped the sentences, and made the chapter titles bold," wrote Everhart, a Blairstown, Mo., trapper. She added that "their version had all my caption lines, in exactly the same place where I had put them."

In follow-up messages, Everhart pointed to such other instances of Kindle cloning as Eldred Nathaniel Woodcock's "Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper" (free on Gutenberg, 99 cents on Amazon), John R. Lockard's "Bee Hunting" ($3.69 as a Kindle edition) and Martin Hunter's "Canadian Wilds" ($3.16 from Amazon). These titles appear to be sold with Amazon's standard digital-rights-management restrictions, a limit absent from Gutenberg downloads.

Producing a Gutenberg text is not easy, Everhart wrote. She said she downloads a scan of the book's pages from the Internet Archive's collection, runs it through optical-character-recognition software and then corrects mistakes and strips out extraneous data before formatting the text to Gutenberg's strict guidelines. Next comes converting that text file into an HTML version with linked images that can finally be uploaded to Gutenberg.

Apparently it's less work to convert that output to a Kindle Store download: "Canadian Wilds" appeared on Gutenberg Oct. 30 and showed up on Amazon a day later.

This activity is, however, permitted under the Gutenberg license. As its introduction explains: "If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that."

Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation chief executive Greg Newby expressed frustration about what he called an old problem for the non-profit organization. "Is this legal? Yes," he wrote in an e-mail Nov. 11. "Is it ethical? I don't think it is."

Newby wrote that many other booksellers had engaged in this sort of harvesting but called Amazon "the worst offender," owing to the number of suppliers it works with.

Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman did not deny the basic allegation in an e-mail last Wednesday that followed a series of queries to the company's PR department: "These books were uploaded by a third party using our self-service platform. I've sent your note to the appropriate team internally." She did not reply to a message asking follow-up questions sent that afternoon and repeated on Monday.

Newby noted that when Gutenberg had complained about copyrighted, non-public-domain works showing up on Amazon, the site "took immediate action." But he said the Seattle-based retailer had ignored its suggestion that it directly offer Gutenberg titles as no-charge, DRM-free downloads--something Apple did in its iBooks store, mostly to Newby's satisfaction.

Until that happens, you have a simple solution: Search the Gutenberg site for a title you're interested in buying for your Kindle and download it from there if it's available. Not only does that site usually offer books in Kindle formats, you can even download them directly to a Kindle.

By Rob Pegoraro  | November 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  E-books, Shopping  
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Think about it folks. If a book is over 100 years old, search Project Gutenberg for it. Don't pay for something that ought to be free. And please consider making a donation to Project Gutenberg to keep the free books coming digitally.

Posted by: moonwatcher2001 | November 30, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I must emphasize what is subtly mentioned halfway through this article - it is NOT Amazon that is posting the book and charging $4 for it - it is some independent person. Anyone can publish anything on Amazon (if they have the rights to it or it is public domain). I could post a classic for sale for $20 if I want. This article says "They took the text version..." WHO? Not Amazon. Amazon didn't make that book, some one else did, and is then trying to sell the book on Amazon. Yes, kindle owners should be more aware that they can get the classics for free, but don't blame Amazon for what other people sell on Amazon. That would be like blaming eBay for something being overpriced on eBay. eBay didn't set the price or offer it for sale.

Posted by: cathyvt | November 30, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

but isn't that the basis of capitalism? cheating people whenever you can?

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | November 30, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Capitalism is what helped make this country great. Is it cheating to obey the law? When Project Gutenberg posted the comment on how to legally convert one of their files to a public domain file - they are training and inviting people to do just that.

Rob is the bad guy here. He is trying to make a story out of nothing. He is pointing at Amazon and shouting "foul". Cathyvt explained how misleading he was and she did a good job.

People pay a dollar or more for a free book on Amazon for the same reasons people pay three times the price for toilet paper at a 7-11 over a grocery store. That's capitalism. No cheating going on. In marketing it is called place value.

I have purchased two collections of old books (about 20 books in each collection) for $1 each on Amazon and delighted that I was able to do it.

When Amazon makes a mistake, then let's point it out, but lay off otherwise.

So, Rob, instead write an article on how you can load hundreds of free books on your kindle and it will only cost you time.

Posted by: Dean-60 | November 30, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Worse than this, Amazon has for years sold print-on-demand versions of badly garbled OCR transcripts of books scanned by others under the "General Books LLC" imprint. "General Books" includes a statement in their imprints saying "we scanned this book." Not true, they simply appropriate the work of others. Many of these books are unreadable due to flawed OCR (with no reformatting whatsoever; chapter headings or illustrations, forget about it), but there is often no warning in the description. I have been in the past a big fan of Amazon, but they have seriously fallen in my estimation through this practice. Here's an example: "Iron Ship-Building; With Practical Illustrations." Except there are no illustrations! Pretty funny, eh? At least it is if you're the company charging people's credit cards for it.

Posted by: chaos1 | November 30, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Rob, for warning people that most if not all of the pre-copyright books (generally anything published before 1923) offered on Amazon are available elsewhere on the web (heard of Google, anyone?) at no charge. Don't listen to the haters, bragging about how much they enjoyed getting ripped off. Just keep up the good work!

Posted by: chaos1 | November 30, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

This is another good reason not to buy a Kindle, because they restrict how you can load books onto it. I did my research and bought a Kobo eReader, mostly because it was a cheaper one that supported ePub and DRM'd PDF. Now I can download from any eBookstore (besides Amazon) and borrow eBooks from the Fairfax County library without any problem. I can also download the Post through the eReplica edition.

Posted by: Hemisphire | November 30, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Amazon's CreateSpace platform allows users to create books from any non-copyrighted source, so these self-published books are legal, legit and actually valuable to some.

General Books is another matter and Amazon should ban them from the site. They have two kinds of books: One is (as described above) an OCR book, but with no images, tons of typos and poor formatting. In essence, they are simply unreadable crap. But General Books also produces computer generated "books" from sources such as WikiPedia. Nothing wrong with creating books from Wiki per se, but these books are computer generated so its just a bunch of random articles slapped together that makes no sense. I feel sorry for people who are tricked into buying these books. General Books should be ashamed of themselves, and Amazon should refuse to sell this garbage.

Posted by: Drew12 | November 30, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon stops this practice. If I bought a KIndle book from them, which was free at Gutenberg, I'd feel like Amazon had taken advantage of the customer.- very bad pub for them.

Posted by: Hattrik | November 30, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Why single out Amazon? So does Barnes & Noble

Posted by: bicbic | November 30, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

It's true that B&N is also guilty as regards the General Books crap OCR "books." Try for example searching "brief history of springfield' on either Amazon or B&N. Alternatively, try searching by the claimed ISBN: 1153239132. For extra credit, try validating this as a legitimate ISBN at a reputable source. I have actually held this "book" in my hands and it is all but unreadable. (There is, however, a very nice pdf version available online (from, which General Books will link you to if you complain -- once you have bought their unreadable version. Which, incidentally, they falsely claim to have scanned themselves.)

Posted by: chaos1 | November 30, 2010 11:58 PM | Report abuse

(Sorry, that should be "brief history of springville.")

Posted by: chaos1 | December 1, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

There are a several key points here:

1. Amazon doesn't set the price for the books it sells (although it may discount the list price). It is the publisher that sets the price

2. Amazon offers over 15,000 free public domain books directly from their site

3. As Project Gutenberg itself states, it is legal for anyone to publish public domain books without permission...the public owns them. PG has always made them available as a public service. I would certainly recommend supporting their effort

4. If you do want to get free books from somewhere other than Amazon, there are sites that reformat the PG books (and books from other sources). and are two such sources...I would recommend them over PG, since they tend to be better formatted

5. The same situation has always existed in paperbooks. Walk into almost any brick and mortar bookstore, and you can buy a copy of Romeo and Juliet...which is in the public domain. You can download it for free from PG, FeedBooks, or ManyBooks as well. If a friend has a papercopy that does not have added material that obtains a new copyright, you can photocopy it and hand it out to whomever you want

6. Amazon itself refers people to Project Gutenberg (and other free book sources, like They feature this in the navigation on their main Kindle books page

7. Amazon discourages the posting of public domain books through its DTP. It stopped accepting them for a while, and then switched to having only their lower royalty option for them. I was happy when they allowed them again, because other people besides PG do digitize public domain books, and this may make those books available to a wide audience again

In short, there is nothing illegal or deceptive about this. I can see how it could be confusing if you don't know about all the options. You can get books for your Kindle from many sources, including books still under copyright. One nice thing: if you have bought a public domain book in the past seven days from the Kindle store you can "return" it for a refund. Neither Barnes and Noble nor Sony allow returns of e-books.

Thank you for alerting those customers who didn't know to one of the additional options. Thanks also to the selfless volunteers who produce books for Project Gutenberg, and to Michael Hart and the others who keep that important progrm going.

Posted by: BufoCalvin | December 1, 2010 1:00 AM | Report abuse

Kind of ironic that this appears in WaPo under the byline 'Faster Forward' -- since I (and probably a whole lot of other people) wrote about it more than a year ago.


Posted by: leoklein | December 1, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

There's a lot of value added from a book being available in the kindle store, particularly for those of us who read on more than one device. These books are no longer under copyright, and PG specifically allows others to use the text from their website for other purposes.

Certainly, we don't need 50 copies of Pride and Prejudice in the kindle store, but there are plenty of public domain books at PG that are not yet in the kindle store. If someone wants to make a well-formatted version of one of those books, I don't see why that would be a problem. It's within the license of PG, is not copyright infringement, and provides a service. And, if the person doing it took the time to make a nice table of contents, add in images, or anything else, I have no problem with paying them for it.

I don't see why this is newsworthy. Should we be blasting Penguin because they release the penguin classics line of books?

Posted by: tuxgirl | December 1, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the tips, Rob.
Well, Amazon has proven, once again, that it is easier to fence stolen goods than to actually perform honest work.

Posted by: analyst72 | December 2, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

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