I remember when I first read about the Gutenberg Project and the many free books that they were giving away. People volunteer for tasks ranging from recording audio versions of the public domain books, entering the text from scans of the books as well as proofreading the books.

Imagine how these hard working people would feel if they knew that their hours of labor were being taken and sold on Amazon.com?

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.”

So Ms. Everhart took the pain of making the book, now in the public domain, freely available to anyone and it is suddenly snatched and put online elsewhere for a profit? How is this acceptable? The real problem lays in the exact phrasing of the Project Gutenberg licensing agreement. Technically speaking, what Amazon is doing is entirely permissible.

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.”

It is heartening that there is good news for Amazon Kindle owners who want to get Gutenberg books on their Kindle without getting ripped off by Amazon — simple instructions can be found here. I have also found a few pieces of software that will convert almost any free e-publication that you can find online from their native format into the .mobi format that the Kindle prefers.


  1. Excellent article, Gordon! Amazon must be watched. It’s so good this issue has been revealed.

    I know the Kindle is on its last sticks as a hunk of hardware — the iPad is on course to take over as the ebook reader of choice — and that’s why Amazon must play fair with consumers and authors at all times as they become a software distributor and not a hardware manufacturer.


    1. That explains a relatively new sales tactic by Amazon — showing a high zoom-in on the kindle versus the ipad showing one as looking just like if you’d zoom in on ‘real print’ versus showing the other as a blur of digital junk.

      I still enjoy using my original Kindle and will continue doing so as long as it lives 🙂