Thoughts on Selling Public Domain Ebooks

Last Change: June 9, 2013

The individual volunteers who produce typeset ebooks for Project Gutenberg, hereafter termed digitizers, have donated their time and expertise to make public-domain works available to the community of online readers. Generally they receive nothing in return except the satisfaction of a skilled job well done, the credit attached to the digitization process, and any consequent online reputation.

Many books available at Project Gutenberg have commercial value, in that readers are willing to pay money for them. Predictably, the practice of reselling public-domain ebooks has arisen. Digitizers have good reasons to dislike reselling, but legally they have little recourse against the practice.

I strongly believe in the importance of education, and of the value of mathematical knowledge and scientific curiosity in particular. Because of this commitment to mathematical education, I volunteer my time, typesetting skills, and mathematical knowledge to the production of high-quality, public-domain mathematical ebooks. These ebooks are donated to the Project Gutenberg web site, where they are catalogued, stored, and made available for download gratis over the World Wide Web.

Because most of Project Gutenberg's catalogue is in the public domain under US copyright law, third parties can and do offer these ebooks for sale. To name two examples, Sylvanus P. Thompson's Calculus Made Easy and Alfred North Whitehead's An Introduction to Mathematics are both (at this writing) on sale at Amazon (and doubtless elsewhere), in forms derived from Project Gutenberg versions.

In the best cases, a seller simply strips off the digitizers' names and the ebook's origins. This removal of attribution infringes due credit, and prevents readers from contacting the digitizer, e.g., to report transcription errors or to send feedback on how future ebooks could be improved. Nonetheless, this is the best outcome, because the result does not actively impugn the digitizer.

More typically, my own work has been (i) crudely repaginated, inappropriately preserving the hyphenation and damaging the formatting; (ii) speciously watermarked as “copyrighted material”; and/or (iii) stripped of its illustrations and mathematical content while retaining my name as digitizer, creating the erroneous impression that I am charging money for a substandard ebook. Other digitizers have reported similar experiences.

While selling public-domain ebooks is not illegal, it exploits readers (by asking them to pay for a gratis product), misappropriates digitizers' labor (by removing credit), and abuses digitizers' good will (selling for profit a gift that the digitizer gave to the Internet).

If you have been misled into purchasing a public-domain ebook, or if you simply agree that harvesting, stripping credit from, and selling public-domain ebooks is wrong, you can help. On the seller's web site where you purchased the ebook, leave a comment or a review saying where the original, high-quality ebook can be obtained gratis. Spread the word that gratis, high-quality ebooks exist, that they are produced by individual volunteers, and that substantial time and skill are needed to perform the digitization well.

Teach your children, your students, and your friends to respect attribution, even if the law does not require it. And finally, please enjoy and share free ebooks.

Creative Commons License
Thoughts on Reselling Public Domain Ebooks by Andrew D. Hwang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.