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Interview with Hugh McGuire, Founder of Librivox.org

Following is an interview with Hugh McGuire, Founder of the Librivox project and member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on the Public Domain.



Could you tell us a bit about the project and its background? Why did you start it? When? What was the need at the time?

There were some philosophical reasons, and some practical reasons for the creation of LibriVox, which “launched” in August 2005. On the philosophical side, I was fascinated by Richard Stallman and the free software movement, both in methodology and in ethic. I was equally excited by Lessig’s work with the Creative Commons movement and the idea of protecting public domain, including projects such as Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg. Brewster Kahle’s vision at the Internet Archive of Universal Access to All Human Knowledge was another piece of the puzzle, as was Wikipedia, the most visible non-software open source project around at the time. Finally blogging and podcasting revealed the possibility that anyone could make media and deliver it to the world. It was a potent cocktail.

On the practical side, I was going on a long drive, and wanted to download some free audiobooks – there weren’t very many to be found – and it seemed to me an open source project to make some would be an exciting application of all that stuff I’d been thinking of above.

How is the project doing now? Any numbers on contributors, files, etc? Wider coverage and exposure?

It’s clicking along. We put out about 100 books a month now. Here are our latest stats:

  • Total number of projects 4342
  • Number of completed projects 3768
  • Number of completed non-English projects 551
  • Total number of languages 32
  • Number of languages with a completed work 29
  • Number of completed solo projects 1716
  • Number of readers 3975…who have completed something 3772
  • Total recorded time: 78850563 seconds, or 2 years, 182 days, 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 31 seconds. Total of 78438 sections.

What are the synergies with other projects/inititatives like Project Gutenberg, Wikimedia Foundation projects, Internet Archive and suchlike?

Project Gutenberg provides the bulk of the texts we work from, and they do all the legal work to make sure the texts are in the public domain. They’ve given us some financial support over the years to pay some server costs. And they also have started hosting some of our audiobooks.

Internet Archive hosts all our audio, and when we need a legal entity to represent us – for instance when we launched our first, brief funding drive this spring – IA helps out.

We’ve never had much connection with the Wikimedia Foundation, though we’ve talked with them over the years of course.

Can users request audio versions of particular texts?

Yes, but that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will want to record them.

What are your current plans for languages other than English?

To record all public domain books in all languages in the universe.

Any interesting stories about Librivox content? Coincidences, anecdotes or interesting reuses of the material?

Eegs. Well, some LibriVox cover art was used in a Blackberry commercial. The explosion & popularity of mobile apps – iPhone/Android – built on the LibriVox catalog has been the most gratifying. And we’re starting to see new websites built on our catalog too … it’s exciting, and demonstrates the value of open APIs:

How can people help out? Are there any particular types of assistance or expertise you are currently seeking?

Mostly: reading and prooflistening.

I understand you are personally interested in open content, open data and the public domain. Do you currently have any plans for other projects in this area?

Hrm. I’m mostly focused on book publishing these days, and I’m trying do things in the publishing industry that push towards a more open approach to content.

Can you give a sense of what you hope this area will look like in the future? E.g. in ten or twenty years time? Any thoughts about the future of delivering and reusing public domain content? New opportunities?

Well one thing I would like to see is the public domain expanding again in the USA. The current approach to copyright — essentially extension after extension so that nothing new ever goes into the public domain — is very depressing. But I think the tension between this desire to keep things locked up, and the unprecedented ability to do things with books, media, data is a great debate. I have to think that in the end the value of using data & media in new ways will outwiegh the desire to create false scarcity, but there’s lots of struggle yet to make this happen, and to figure out what businesses look like in such an environment.

In short – we live in interesting times.

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