brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Works of Shakespeare Copyrighted on Project Gutenberg?

As a followup to my earlier posting on the public domain, I noticed something rather curious. if you surf over to Project Gutenberg looking for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, you can look at the Copyright Status field, and it says "Copyrighted. Read the copyright notice inside this book for details."


Sure enough, it says inside:


Okay, that's not the biggest deal in the world, but I do think that it's pretty annoying that the works of someone whose been dead for 394 years could still be under copyright. All is not lost though. While some of the plays such as this version of King Lear are copyrighted, other versions are available which are properly in the public domain. One just has to be careful about these details when one seeks to modify or redistribute these works.

While digging around, I also discovered another interesting resource. Some free online references made reference to the Complete Moby Shakespeare, and with a little digging I found that the Moby Shakespeare was available online, and it claims to be in the public domain. It is a part of Grady Ward's Moby Project, and in addition to Shakespeare, includes a bunch of other resources: a list of 185,000 word hypenations, parts of speach, a thesaurus, and pronunciations for many words. A very neat resource. Bookmarked for later consumption.


Teaching English, Ebooks, and the Public Domain

Forgive this slightly meandering diatribe, there are a few ideas that have been kicking around in my head, and today is the day I decided to try to give them form here on my blog. I've been thinking about three interwoven topics: the rather odd way we teach people "English" in high school, the oncoming electronic book revolution, and the public domain.

On the drive in to work, I was thinking what an odd subject "English" actually is. It is actually an amalgum of two separate disciplines which are only vaguely related. The first is mastery (or at least competence) in the basic mechanics of the English language: mastery of spelling, increasing your vocabulary, and constructing meaningful and precise sentences. The second is usually reading, analysis and criticism of some works which are viewed as "good" by some, well, teachers of the English language. For some reason, these works seem to be almost exclusively works of fiction or poetry, and are usually of considerable diversity. They also seem to have largely written by people who are now dead, people who lived not just before the birth of modern high school students, but often before the birth of their grandparents.

Leaving that for the moment, I recently was gifted an iPad by my lovely wife. I've discovered (somewhat to my amazement) that one of its primary uses for me has been as an ebook reader. I've been rather skeptical of the ebook reading experience, but without really making an effort, I've found that I have read five entire books on my iPad, and generally had a very positive experience. I've begun to actually buy books online. Yes, you don't actually have the physical artifact anymore, but Amazon will nicely keep track of the books you have bought, and you can redownload them to your device (or new devices) whenever you please, so in some sense they are better than the physical artifact. They are also in general signficantly cheaper: the $9.99 pricepoint is gaining some traction in the market.

I've also found the iPad to be a convenient repository for the myriad of technical PDF files that I used to have to print to read. Suddenly, bankers' boxes full of papers are obsolete: I'm just downloading them to my iPad and tossing them into the shredder. The paperless office might still be a myth, but the source of much of the clutter in my office is slowly evaporating. It's a minor revolution for me and my reading habits.

And now, the public domain. As long time readers of this blog can assert, I'm a big fan of Project Gutenberg and other efforts to make books and materials which are in the public domain widely available. But even I was forced to admit that I didn't read a lot of the freely available classics of literature that are available because reading on your computer just isn't that pleasant. But I find reading on the iPad to be pretty pleasant, so I'm finding that I don't have any excuse anymore. Many, many classics are available for free and I actually enjoy reading them using the iPad. The net result of this is that I'm reading more, and it is not like I didn't read a lot before.

Okay, back to teaching English.

One of the reasons that I suspect that high school English curricula contain so many "old books" is that these old books are now in the public domain, and are therefore cheaper to buy. But in electronic format, these books aren't just cheap, they are for all practical purposes free. I was scanning a few suggested reading lists for high school students such as this one. The page thoughtfully says that:

Students may find these titles at libraries and bookstores.

But somewhat tragically, the page doesn't even acknowledge that online editions could exist. I conservatively estimate that at least half and likely three quarters of these books are available in electronic formats for free. Imagine what we could do for the literacy of young people if we made sure that all these titles were available to them.

And of course we can go further. Using the Kindle reader on the iPad, you can highlight and annotate your book, but you can also share your highlighting and see parts which are commonly highlighted. Imagine an ecosphere where we could archive the commentary of these classic works, and make them similarly available to all readers.

In my analysis thusfar, I've been unfairly ignoring the cost of the reader. After all, my iPad wasn't cheap even by my standards, and putting one in the hands of high school students seems like a huge expense. To that, I would merely say that other good reader options are emerging at much more competitive price points, and it is likely to only get better over time. Currently the cheapest Kindle you can buy (and which I ordered this morning) is a mere $139, which still sounds like a lot when you compare it to a single paperback, but when you compare it to 20 cheap paperbacks, it's about even, and when you compare it to 200 paperbacks, it's pretty obviously a heck of a bargain. It's also a lot smaller and lighter than carrying even a single book, you can adjust font sizes so even my presbyopic eyes can read comfortably, and you can even do a bit of web browsing and check your twitter and facebook feeds.

I read arguments that we are becoming an increasingly illiterate society. Too much TV, too many video games, too much consumption, not enough reflection. But I see glimmers of hope. The computer networks which bury us in spam also allow us to communicate as never before. The devices which seduce with cheap thrills can also be used to educate and inform.

I don't think these devices are a panacea. Putting them in the hands of students is no guarantee of improved results, but I think they represent an interesting new opportunity. And even at age forty-six, I think they will reduce the cost of enhancing my mind by bringing some classic literature onto my virtual shelf, without cluttering my physical shelf.

Okay, that's off my chest. I'm off to download Jack London's The Sea Wolf.


Gutenberg Gem: Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son, by John Mills

I love old books, even  on technical subjects like radio.  Often, by looking at the books of the past, we find them more accessible (because there was less knowledge, they assume less as a precursor) and also possess considerable historical interest.

Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son is a nice little book by John Mills Sr. to his son back in 1922, which begins simply with:

My Dear Son:

You are interested in radio-telephony and want me to explain it to you. I’ll do so in the shortest and easiest way which I can devise. The explanation will be the simplest which I can give and still make it possible for you to build and operate your own set and to understand the operation of the large commercial sets to which you will listen.

I’ll write you a series of letters which will contain only what is important in the radio of to-day and those ideas which seem necessary if you are to follow the rapid advances which radio is making. Some of the letters you will find to require a second reading and study. In the case of a few you might postpone a second reading until you have finished those which interest you most. I’ll mark the letters to omit in this way.

All the letters will be written just as I would talk to you, for I shall draw little sketches as I go along. One of them will tell you how to experiment for yourself. This will be the most interesting of all. You can find plenty of books to tell you how radio sets operate and what to do, but very few except some for advanced students tell you how to experiment for yourself. Not to waste time in your own 4experiments, however, you will need to be quite familiar with the ideas of the other letters.

It's a delightful little book, which talks about electrons, and waves, capacitance and inductance, audion tubes and continuous waves.  It's not mathematical, but neither is it just handwaving.  It strikes a nice balance, and should be accessible to anyone with basic science knowledge. Check it out.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Letters of a Radio-Engineer to His Son, by John Mills.


Gutenberg Gem: Astronomical Instruments and Accessories, by Wm. Gaertner & Co.

It's been quite some time since I posted a "Gutenberg Gem", a book from Project Gutenberg that might deserve some special attention. Today's example contains a bunch of nice illustrations about telescopes and their associated astronomical instruments. Very nice. Not just traditional refracting telescopes, but also instruments like spectrum comparators and filar micrometers.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Astronomical Instruments and Accessories, by Wm. Gaertner & Co..


Remember Girls!

If you're givin' it up, you're going steady with HitlerThe Free Information Society has links to a bunch of WWII era propaganda posters, including this rather amusing one linking promiscuity with dating Hitler. Holy crap. You can't make stuff like this up.


Mars Rover Suspension Patent

Mars Rover SuspensionI ran across a reference to the patent on the wheel system used by NASA in their Mars Rovers, and thought that Patent 4,840,394 - Articulated Suspension System might be worth noting for future examination.

A vehicle is provided which maintains a substantially constant weight, and therefore traction, on all wheels despite one wheel moving considerably higher or lower than the others, while avoiding a very soft spring suspenson.


FM 34-40-2 Basic Cryptanalysis

Interesting link of the day, courtesy of Boing Boing: FM 34-40-2 Basic Cryptanalysis. The truth is this kind of cryptography is pretty much of historical interest only, but I find historic codes to be, well, interesting.


Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

What can I say? It's a cough cough classic, brought to you by


Digital Libraries Considered Bad

Sometimes, you just have to shake your head at the stupidity of people. Today's installment comes from the editorial pages of the New York Times, where we find the following (registration required):

To the Editor:

Re "Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database" (front page, Dec. 14):

While having online access to some great libraries promises to facilitate research in democratizing access to books, it is worth keeping some things in mind.

A digital version of a book - especially a rare one, printed centuries ago - is not a replacement for the hard copy.

Not only has printed paper proved a durable technology, but there is also much to be gained by visiting the libraries, examining the actual books and entering into discussions with librarians and other researchers.

Gaining access to a digital reproduction of an older text makes it easier to take a first step, but little good research will be done simply sitting alone in front of a computer screen.

Lisa Shapiro
Vancouver, British Columbia
Dec. 14, 2004
The writer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University.

It's hard to imagine a more stupid response to the news that Google will open up access to potentially millions of books via the Internet. Honestly Professor Shapiro, just what are you thinking?

It is clear (and obvious) that digital copies are not the same as having the real book. But consider this: I have never seen a real Gutenberg Bible. But I know what one looks like. I haven't seen copies of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelescium, or Galileo's Siderius Noncius, but I can buy them. Are you saying that my ability to do research is somehow inhibited by the relatively easy ability of inexpensive digital copies of these works?

And for pity sakes, when you say that you are deprived of conversations with librarians and researchers, just what do you think the Internet is for? That screen in front of you? It allows you to communicate with millions and soon to be billions of other people.

And those librarians and researchers? They publish books too. Books that will be made available through digitization efforts like the one Google proposed. I don't need to be in the same room to them to be influenced by their ideas.

Consider going over to Project Gutenberg's CD Project website. You can download 600 eBooks onto a CD. You can download 9400 books onto a DVD. If Professor Shapiro thinks that nothing will come of making these works available at literally no cost to anyone within range of the Internet, I can't help but shake my head at the ivory tower that these academics live in.


Google to Digitize Harvard University Library

Google is embarking on a pilot project to digitize and make available a large number of the 15 million books currently at the Harvard University Library. The goal is to make all of the public domain texts available. Wow. That's awesome.


Charlie Chaplin Festival

The feature film section of has just released The Charlie Chaplin Festival, including the short films The Adventurer, The Cure, Easy Street and The Immigrant. Enjoy!


NPR : Political Speeches and the Public Domain

This morning Neda Ulaby of NPR reported on Political Speeches and the Public Domain, which covers a dilemma. Public speeches by politicians are normally considered to be in the public domain, but news networks recording such events often copyright their own recordings of these events, causing enormous difficulties for historians, students, and independent film makers to use these materials. They often require written permission before they can even examine this footage, and negotiate the circumstances under which material can be used. Arguing fair use can be problematic and expensive at best, requiring deeper pockets than many independent organizations can muster.

Thought provoking.


Bad Film? You are soaking in it!

Interested in fan films? Then try giving Attack of the Flesh-Eating Subterranean Bog-Monster from the Center of the Earth and Beyond the Moon: Apocalyptic Revenge! a try. (Link courtesy of Kevin).


Talking Boards Patents and Trademarks

Ouija Board PatentFor some reason, I found a reference to an early patent on Ouija boards, and with a bit of digging, came up with this page of Talking Boards Patents and Trademarks. Most of these early patents declare it a game, rather than a legitimate way to contact the dead.

Using pat2pdf, I extracted a few of these patents as PDF files:

Becker, 1880
Patent 233,198
Bond, 1891
Patent 446,054, the first patent to mention the term "Ouija"
Fuld, 1892
Patent 479,266, makers of Ouija boards until the bottom fell out of the market in the 1970s

It appears that patent examiners of the past were every bit as diligent as those we have today.


How to ameliorate the outcome of Eldred v. Ashcroft

Your Government at WorkI'm nearing the end of Lessig's Free Culture, and am at the point in the book where Lessig describes his loss in Eldred v. Ashcroft which challenged the consitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. It is very interesting on many levels: to see how Lessig strategized, to see what arguments were made and how the justices responded. It's even somewhat moving to hear his description of his disappointment with the Supreme Court in their ruling, which was contrary to their finding in Lopez, and failed utterly to discuss the merits of Lessig's argument.

Many of Lessig's supporters wrote him to tell him that he never had a chance: the Supreme Court simply wasn't ready to reverse Congress on this matter. So the burden shifts between trying to convince the Supreme Court to trying to convince Congress.

We've got a tough row to hoe. The entertainment industry is a powerful lobby and contributes a great deal of money to preserve the monopoly power that long (or practically infinite) terms grant them. It's hard to see how your average yutz can go toe-to-toe with their interests and come out ahead.

What can we do then? Well, we could try taking a cue from the Open Source world. Open source exists solely because people choose to donate their works to greater the common good. People give up their rights to maintain exclusive rights so that people can build on their work and expand its scope and utility. The Creative Commons provides a useful framework for giving up some of your rights (or all of your rights) and making them available to all. By granting people specific rights under a Creative Commons license agreement, you are saying "I don't need all the rights granted to me, I'm happy with less" and you encourage others to build upon your creative work.

Another thing you can do is help educate others on the power of public domain resources. For instance, consider the following list of 100 great books in the public domain. You'll see many familiar books there. How many have you read? (I've read 29 of them, 30 if you could the Bible). All of these books are available on Project Gutenberg. Moreover, most of these books are still in print because publishers don't have to pay royalties for their use. Publishers like Penguin Classics or Dover are free to republish these, often in inexpensive editions which are terrific. If they still had to pay royalties, many of these works would be out of print.

Don't believe me? Let's examine a book which is in the public domain, like Alice in Wonderland. Searching on, we find that the Signet Classic edition of this book runs for $3.95. Actually, that's a pretty good buy, because it includes the book Through the Looking Glass as well. Compare this to The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925 and is therefore still under copyright. We see that the cheapest edition of this book is $9.06, with a list price of $12.95. The Puffin Classic edition of The Three Musketeers costs a whopping $4.99. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (still under copyright) lists for $10.40, with a list price of $13.00. You could work out the cost of the CTEA by multiplying the number of years by the average increase in cost for a book like The Sun Also Rises and the number of copies, and see what that total is. This particular book ranks 2,333 on, so you'd imagine that it's still selling pretty well. Let's assume it sells ten thousand copies a year, the terms were expanded by twenty years, and the average cost is $2.00 more per copy. The cost (not assuming any kind of inflation) is then $400,000. The CTEA robbed the public out of $400,000 worth of value to perpetuate a monopoly for the copyright holders. Try multiplying that out by all the books which had their terms extended, and you see that Congress handed millions and millions of dollars to copyright owners. The Sun Also Rises would have entered the public domain twice in the last few years except for the laws enacted by Congress to extend terms for which the public at large derived absolutely no tangible benefit. The CTEA was nothing more than the extension of a monopoly for which we all pay.

This message can be brought home by reiteration (perhaps even better and more clearly expressed than I can), but also by making good use of available public domain resources. For instance, if I want to know which Shakespeare play contained the words "If the cause be not good", I can access a Shakespeare search engine, and find the speech by Williams in King Henry V. This search engine exists because someone saw a need, and there was no need to license the underlying work to achieve it. Try to find a Hemingway search engine. Go ahead.

Well, I've run out of steam for today, so I'll just sum up. What can we do? We can carry on, using the resources that are available to us, and we can choose not to pursue the culture of exclusivity and ownership that current copyright practice promotes. In other words, we change society not by legislating the change, but by changing ourselves.

Addendum: the image illustrating this entry came from Project Gutenberg.