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 I heard of his death, I wrote a formal message in Dutch, but there is so much more to tell, so I will share some memories here.

In 2004, he was in the Netherlands together with Richard Stallman for a debate I organised in Amsterdam under the title “Freedom of Information”. Despite very different characters – sometimes clashing – they both fought against greedy copyright extortionists, for freedom of information. Although Michael was planning to travel through Europe, he stayed at our farm in Friesland for a few weeks and became part of the family. We got to know him well and spent a lot of time talking and entertaining each other.

Although the debate in Amsterdam had some hick-ups, State Secretary Annette Nijs invited us to talk about textbooks with a free, as in freedom, character – actually GFDL-ed. After a clash with her superior, she left the political stage, was succeeded by Marc Rutte and he eventually cancelled the appointment. While Annette Nijs learned that day the value of free information and the economic, social and cultural gains that free textbooks make possible, Marc Rutte squandered the opportunities and to this day the Dutch government has never picked up signals from the Vrijschrift Foundation to study the possibilities, ultimately and still to this day 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 educated and because of their interest in Shakespeare he had knowledge of his own. One evening he started reading to Ghislaine. She was sitting on his lap and with not much knowledge of English at the age of 14 she started asking what he meant. So he started to explain and took her along in the difficult to understand story. She absorbed and understood everything. Liesbeth and I did not say a word, we were amazed.

We talked a lot about how communities work, how the concept of free software could be applied to other media such as engineering and schoolbooks. He found it was odd how he was surrounded by young people and expressed his disappointment in people who had traded their idealism for careers, having left almost nobody from the past. Maybe this was one of the reasons why we liked him so much, because we were older too. At one point Ghislaine was studying an English schoolbook and Michael asked about it. He started reading aloud – he often did. After a few seconds he started laughing and said: “This is not right, I have just read two sentences and notice it is not genuine, it is written by Dutchmen. This way you will never learn your English properly.” Almost immediately I realised that free schoolbooks written by native English speakers with localised explanations by native non-English speakers would be great. Brussels could play a stimulating role in setting up and maintaining professional volunteers. Although we were both enthusiastic in setting up such a project, we were probably too busy to fill it and convincing politicians to play a stimulating role is also wishful dreaming.

At this moment many things come to mind, such as how we discussed ‘the revolution’ at Ketje’s in Brussels and the gnome who followed Michael on his journey through Europe. Liesbeth has printed text on the following photo:

He told us that the photo had been taken by a girlfriend during a photography exercise for their school. Inadvertently, it was a great vehicle for a slogan with impact: “Break the bars of ignorance and illiteracy”. Well Michael, you have really done that and although we are only at the beginning of an era where free information is crucial for humanity, you have pioneered and sought new frontiers behind those bars. I am grateful to you for doing this and I am sad to lose a friend.


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