Amazon’s self-publishing platform has the Internet’s largest bookseller in hot water again. This time it’s for taking free books from Project Gutenberg and collecting cash for them at the online store for its Kindle e-reader. Amazon itself isn’t repurposing the Gutenberg texts–that’s done by “publishers” using the company’s self-service platform–but it is taking a cut of the proceeds from the sale.
There’s nothing illegal about what the self-service publishers are doing, but some would say it is far from ethical. Project Gutenberg’s license agreement clearly states: “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.”
Just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should, especially if you’re trying to make money off someone else’s sweat.
Producing books for Project Gutenberg can be a lot work, as contributor Linda M. Everhart noted in a letter cited today in the Washington Post. Contributors may have to download the scanned pages of a book and rescan them with optical recognition software. They may have to correct mistakes made during the OCR process. Then they must reformat the text to meet Gutenberg guidelines. Finally, they convert the reformatted text to HTML with links to images and upload it to Gutenberg.
Everhard, a Montana trapper, contributed a 1906 tome by Arthur Robert Harding called Fox Trapping to Gutenberg. She later found her work, stripped of the Gutenberg references and with a few cosmetic changes, selling in the Kindle store for $4.
This isn’t the first time Amazon’s do-it-yourself publishing offerings or Kindle sales policies have caused dust ups. Earlier this month, the company took a lot of heat over a self-published work titled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct being sold at its site. It subsequently stopped selling the book. Amazon has also had to remove unauthorized copies of books from the Kindle store, a move that caused an uproar because Amazon also secretly removed them from Kindles whose their owners had bought the books in good faith.