Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitize and archive books, is sometimes described as the world’s oldest digital library.
Founded in 1971, Project Gutenberg‘s archives now stretch to a total of more than 62,000 books, with a focus on titles that entered the public domain after their copyrights expired. The library does carry some and in-copyright books but these are distributed with the express permission of their owners.
The project has an excellent reputation and its work is considered a great contribution to education and culture. However, it now transpires that the site has been rendered inaccessible by ISPs in Italy under the instructions of the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Rome.
Project Gutenberg Chief Executive and Director posted an announcement to Twitter apologizing for the disruption of service while revealing that the surprise action had been taken by the Italian authorities.
Investigation was carried out by police financial crimes unit
As the above shows, the action involves the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian police unit tasked with financial crimes. GdF is regularly involved in enforcement actions against pirate sites and with the assistance of the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Rome, is heavily involved in site-blocking decisions. Indeed, a court order published by Techdirt reveals that Project Gutenberg’s issues are directly linked to a copyright infringement case.
Published in Italian, the document is a “notification of preventative seizure decree” actioned under Article 321 of the Italian Criminal Code. It lists a total of 28 domains including what appears to be many platforms dedicated to the distribution of pirated literary content.
Unfortunately, however, Project Gutenberg has also been thrown into the mix for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.
Gutenberg.org Declared an Illegal For-Profit Pirate Site
The seizure/blocking notice states that all of the targeted domains “distributed, transmitted and disseminated in pdf format, magazines, newspapers and books (property protected by copyright) after having illegally acquired numerous computer files with their content, communicating them to the public, [and] entering them into a system of communication networks.”
Similar allegations are made against eight monitored Telegram channels with the following explanation:
“The investigation, conducted by a special unit of the Guardia di Finanza, has been developed in the context of monitoring the targeted Internet networks to combat economic and financial offenses perpetrated online.
“In this context, the operators identified some web resources registered on foreign servers which make content and magazines available to the public early in the morning, allowing users to view or download digital copies,” the court document reads. (translated from Italian)
Court Order Also Sent to Google
The order from the Court of Rome was also sent to Google, a copy of which was acquired by TorrentFreak from the Lumen Database. The sender was Reccia Giovanni who is listed as a commander with the GdF. As the image below shows, Gutenberg.org is 15th on the list of allegedly infringing sites.
Despite Project Gutenberg’s best efforts, copyright holders still file plenty of DMCA infringement notices with Google complaining that it infringes copyright law. Luckily, however, the search giant doesn’t seem particularly interested in taking the complaints seriously.
According to its transparency report, Google has received requests to have 1,110 URLs from Gutenberg.org deleted from its search results. The company took “no action” for 85.9% and marked the remaining 14.1% as duplicate requests, for which it also did nothing.
This seems to suggest that while Google understands the business of Project Gutenberg and was able to respond appropriately, the combined forces of the Italian financial police, the court, and telecoms watchdog AGCOM (which handles blocking), aren’t able to tell the difference between a pirate site and a public domain library.