Amazon charges Kindle users for free Project Gutenberg e-books
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.
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