In Memoriam: Michael Hart

Michael Hart, founder of project Gutenberg, will always have a special place in the hearts of my daughter Ghislaine, my wife Liesbeth and me.

After hearing about his death I wrote a formal message in Dutch but there is so much more to tell so I’ll dig up some memories here. A brain blurb:

In 2004 he was visiting Holland together with Richard Stallman for a debate I organized in Amsterdam called “Freedom of Information”. Despite very different characters – sometime colliding – they both fought against greedy copyright extenders, favored freedom of information. Although Michael planned to travel through Europe he stayed several weeks at our farmhouse in Friesland and became part of the family. We learned to know him well and spent much time talking and entertaining each other.

Although the debate in Amsterdam had some hick ups, state secretary Annette Nijs invited us to talk about schoolbooks with a free as in freedom character – basically GFDL-ed. After a collision with her chief she left the political scene, was followed up by Marc Rutte and finally he cancelled the appointment. While Annette Nijs learned that day to understand the value of free information and the economical, social and cultural gain made possible by free schoolbooks, Marc Rutte ruined the opportunities and up to today the Dutch government never picked up signals from the Vrijschrift Foundation to study the possibilities, finally and still squandering opportunities.

Michael knew this, predicted this and clearly expressed his dislike for politics. Despite this I convinced him to go talking in the European Parliament and so we did. It was former anti software patent MEP Johanna Boogerd opening the door in Brussels – she had a small statue of an ear on her desk. He talked and was able to convince people of the importance a free information – in particular publishing books from the public domain. The EP is more likely to extend copyright terms than to give the people of the earth what they deserve and increase chances for access to information to more people. The publishers lobby is strong.

You should know that Michael’s parents were highly developed and because of their interest in Shakespeare he himself had knowledge too. One evening he started to read for Ghislaine. She was sitting on his lap and with not too much knowledge of English at the age of 14 she started to ask questions what he meant. So he started explaining and absorbed her in the hard to understand story. Liesbeth and I didn’t say a word, we were amazed.

We discussed a lot about the way communities work, how the concept of free software could be applied to other media like engineering and schoolbooks. He thought it was odd how he was surrounded by young people and how he was disappointed about people that exchanged their idealism for careers, having left almost nobody from the past. Perhaps this was one of the reasons we liked him so much since we were older too. At a moment Ghislaine was studying an English schoolbook and Michael asked for it. He started reading loud – he often did this. After just a few seconds he started to laugh and said: “This is not right, I just read two sentences and notice it is not genuine, it is written by Dutch people. This way you never learn your English well.” Almost immediate I realized that free schoolbooks written by native English speaking people with localized explanations by native speaking non English people would be great. Brussels could play a stimulating role in the creation and maintaining of professional volunteers. Although we were both enthusiastic in setting up such a project we were probably too occupied to fill it in and convincing politics to play a stimulating role is also wishful dreaming.

Right now many things come up to my mind, like how we discussed ‘the revolution’ at Ketje in Brussel and the gnome following Michael on his trip in Europe. Liesbeth printed text on the following picture:

He told us that the picture was made by a girlfriend during an photography exercise for their school. Accidentally it was a great carrier for a slogan with impact: “Break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy”. Well Michael, you really did that and although we are just at the beginning of an era where free information is crucial for mankind, you pioneered and sought new boundaries behind those bars. I am grateful you did this and I am sad to loose a friend.


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