Should you pay a subscription fee to access the classics online? The World eBook Library is doing some good by promoting literature–but could it actually harm the Gutenberg cause of free public domain books?
The World eBook Fair is supposed to be celebrating the temporary relaxation of WeBL’s $8.95 subscription fee. But why should there be any fee charged at any time for online versions of Gutenberg-prepared classics, given the economies of virtual distribution? I heartily approve of WeBL mixing classics with copyrighted books, but access to classics should be separated from other books so the free model isn’t impaired. If Gutenberg volunteers are not careful, they could see the pay-to-read model prevail over the free one.
Meanwhile I continue to wonder why the World eBook Library is focused on the proprietary PDF format–which will most likely be more ephemeral over the long run than many would think. Is Adobe paying these people? Somehow it doesn’t seem right to celebrate–without reservations–a big e-library whose holdings are on the electronic equivalent of acidic paper. Gutenberg founder Michael Hart insists on public domain books being preserved in ASCII via the real Project Gutenberg, and I wouldn’t disagree. Alas, however, while XML-based formats easily allow conversion back to ASCII, that isn’t always the case with PDF. Thumbs up on the basic idea of an e-book fair. Thumbs down on the WeBF as it now exists. It would be wonderful if WeBF took care to separate the free and the paid, and also got its format act together.
The library angle: Libraries shouldn’t check out public domain classics without any copyright content included. They should give them away.