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HarperCollins hit a snag with ebook direct-to-consumer selection

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When HarperCollins launched its direct-to-consumer ebook sales platform, co-authored with Accenture, a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company located in Ireland, in October 2013, C.S. Lewis and Narnia were selected as its flagship media properties.

A side note of interest is that ebooks and digitally-printed books, looked down upon by the big publishers and regarded as “not real books” only a few years ago, continue to surge forward pulling major publishers on board. Initially the websites C.S. Lewis.com and Narnia.com website were launched in an attempt at an end-run around Amazon and Smashwords. Although that sounds good and aggressive, the plan has hit one little snag – C.S. Lewis’s works are now out of copyright in Canada and elsewhere, and the Narnia series is actually available for free in its entirety from the Project Gutenberg Canada website.

The banner on the HarperCollins Narnia.com website proclaims, “Find out how fans of C.S. Lewis are celebrating the life of this much-loved author 50 years after his death.” The problem is that Project Gutenberg Canada celebrated Lewis by digitizing the entire Narnia series. Then they put it online in multiple formats including HTML, text format, and fine-looking EPUB editions.

Although HarperCollins had been fairly reserved about revealing its plans for the Narnia platform and similar initiatives, their partner Accenture described it as “an end-to-end e-commerce and direct to consumer distribution solution for HarperCollins Publishers e-books globally.”

The idea of issuing all of the direct to consumer offerings and kicking off the program with Narnia probably was brilliant when conceived, but Gutenberg Canada may have caught HarperCollins unaware.

Given a choice, C.S. Lewis fans have a totally free option to download every book in the Narnia cycle, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe of 1950 to 1956′s The Last Battle. Lewis’s very interesting early science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet is also up on Project Gutenberg Canada already, as are his works of Christian apologetics The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters. There isn’t much doubt that others will follow soon.

The question is posed, “Will readers outside Canada will be devious enough to download these works in defiance of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act? That Act and some other legislation extended the period that Mickey Mouse’s copyright was protected. Corporations like Disney loved it. But according to the Act, you can’t read The Great Gatsby and many other classics for free on the Net.

Project Gutenberg Canada’s website states, “The ebooks on this website are in the Canadian public domain, and are offered to you at no charge. If you live outside Canada, download an ebook only if you are certain that the book is in your country’s public domain.”

That’s all well and good, but Project Gutenberg Canada also carries a headline on the Home page of their website that says,

Canadianssend a short and very clear email to your government to say no copyright extensions

The public domain belongs to the people!

In the end, will it all come down to a matter of scruples, folks? Will the average American look at what Project Gutenberg Canada has to offer, which is extensive, scratch their head and say, “Oh my goodness. I don’t live in Canada so I can’t download this. Better go to a legal site where I will pay for it?” Or will they look the other way and with one quick click download the book? I’ve checked it out. There are no restrictions on who can click.

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Morgan St. James is the author of eleven books and over 500 published articles related to the business and craft of writing. For more information about her and a list of her books visit www.morganstjames-author.com.

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