The Gutenberg project was forced to block all of its pages following a decision by the German courts. A situation born of a conflict of laws over the term of protection of copyright between the German Rhine and the United States. The Gutenberg project has been offering for thousands of thousands of electronic books in the field public. The works are available in several languages, including French where you can download free Beaumarchais, Molière, Blaise Pascal … and more recent titles like those of Paul Claudel or Colette.
The site is based on US legislation, which considers that works enter the public domain, following the passage of a number of years from the date of publication (see complex calculations). We quickly guess the concern in Germany where this period is calibrated as in France 70 years after the death of the author.
The publisher S. Fischer Verlag, who claims to be acting on behalf of the three authors (Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin, who died in 1950, 1955 and 1957 respectively) dragged the Gutenberg Project to the Frankfurt am Main regional court in to obtain the withdrawal of 18 ebooks, under threat of 250,000 euros and up to six months in prison.
"An unlawful act (…) is deemed to have been committed both at the time the offense was committed and when it produced its effects" explain the German judges, who therefore considered themselves competent to take such a decision against from an American site.
Risk of contagion
After their judgment of 9 February 2018 in favor of the plaintiff, rather than withdrawing these 18 works, the American site preferred to block access to all of its pages to German readers. "There are thousands of eBooks in the Project Gutenberg collection that could be subject to similar and illegitimate actions," he explains on a dedicated page.
The Gutenberg Project is nowadays unable to determine the number of times the eighteen works have been downloaded from Germany, since it does not record the logs of the readers. It can not therefore respond to the decision that requires this information to assess the amount of any damages.
This is not the first time this clash of legislation has occurred. In 2003 for example, in the columns of Pirates Mag, we relate the case of Classics of Social Sciences. The editions of Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) had then little appreciated that works from its catalog are available for free on the Quebec site. This one sheltered then behind the local legislation which devotes the monopoly of the author 50 years after his death, 20 years younger than in France.