May 2010

We actually think people should own a physical copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. While we do host it on the internet, reading a good long book is best done away from a computer screen with its many distractions. In fact, we say as much on the disclaimer that introduces the chapters:

“[W]e are sure that once you new people begin reading it, you'll go out and get a physical copy. You should go and get it (and ones for your friends and family). At this point, A People's History Of The United States is available in regular form, read aloud on audio, on posters, in a teaching edition, and as just the twentieth century chapters (we have all but the posters). And now here. Please Enjoy!”

Even though we want people to have a physical copy of the book, we can't take it off the internet.

First, the internet is more like an ecosystem than a bookstore. You can't just take books off the shelves; if it has been introduced, it's going to be floating out there somewhere: in a cache, on the way back machine, on a torrent, entirely copied onto another website, downloaded and ready somewhere else. And you can no more remove it from the internet than you could recall all of this year's ladybugs. It's like that old game “wack a mole” with several billion possible spots for the mole to jump out.

Second, we occasionally look at our referrer links. (Regular readers, we don't use cookies or any privacy invasive technology at all. Any website administrator in the world can look at what websites people are coming in from and it's all listed in the aggregate, nothing individual at all.) Regularly, small community colleges and high schools use our site as a second text book. I don't know if any of the legal staff who sent us this “cease and desist” letter attended city high schools, but some of us did. The idea that teachers in schools anything like the woefully underbudgeted ones we attended having access to Howard Zinn is enough to make us smile (and grit our teeth at being asked to remove it).

You would think with all this free Howard Zinn available that it would be harming book sales, but A People's History of the United States is currently ranked 169th in books on Amazon, 21st in History of the Americas, 20th in History of the United States, and first in Nonfiction Government Democracy. Not bad for a thirty year old history book. Not only do we think we're not hurting those book sales, but we believe we may be playing a small role in this. Besides buying the book for people ourselves and recommending it for years before putting it online, we think it's the sort of book that people read and then get a copy for a curious friend and or a loved one who they may, incidentally, argue politics with over the thanksgiving dinner. They may start online, but they move on to a physical book.

But there is a last reason.

Howard Zinn gave us explicit permission before we did it. We asked him. At the time, we didn't realize that we were going to put the whole book up, but he gave pretty much blanket permission to one of our participants (Forgive the vagueness, we are a shadowy anonymous project. This affords us some protection if we are ever targeted by a huge mega corporation, but we also think we don't deserve any extra kudos for doing what anyone should do: namely, sharing). When we asked him about making copies and posting stuff online, he said something to the effect of “Sure, do anything you want with it.”

When one of our participants saw Howard last November, they approached him and, somewhat sheepishly, asked him what he thought of his entire book being online. He said he thought it was “fantastic.” That's not a paraphrase. He went on to say how great he thought it was, and they even gave him a button.

You wrote us a very legal letter that included this sentence:

In Accordance with the Digital Millenial Copyright Act (the “DMCA”), we represent in good faith that neither HarperCollins, the Author, the Author's agent, nor any provision of law, has authorized the publication and display of the Work on the Web Site.
This may have been written in good faith, but it is wrong. Howard Zinn authorized the publication and display of the work on our website.

However, we realize we are making our case to both the general public as well as to a legal department at Harper Collins who may decide to take us to court and bully us into submission, so we are willing to make two offers.

The first offer is to place a link to purchase the book. We have no interest in any sort of “profit sharing” scheme that companies like Amazon offer to websites that link to them, we will continue to not make a cent off this venture. We're not here to make money, we're here to make change.

The second offer is less rational, but we can't help ourselves. Some of us got a chance to meet Howard and have dinner with him and he was about as incredibly sweet and decent a person as we have met. We would do nothing to harm him or his family and if either his daugher or son ask us to remove the book, we will. We understand the royalties for the book are probably getting socked away to pay for his grandkids' or great-grandkids' college tuition, and we honestly believe that a community that enthusiastically promotes Howard Zinn is better than one that doesn't, for royalties and otherwise, but we will respect their wishes. (As an aside to Myla and Jeff, we swear that every word of this is true and that your father gave us permission beforehand and later told us he thought the whole thing was fantastic).

We love A People's History of the United States and we love Howard Zinn. We think it possesses something few books ever contain: the potential to re-wire how people think of their government, their history, their relationship to democracy, and their own political agency. And from many conversations and emails, this potential continues to be realized over and over again, every day. Before it, the stories of coal miners resisting and slaves rebelling were relegated to folk songs or hidden away in some history classes taught in some places. Now a people's history can be found everywhere, from online to #169 on Amazon. We want it get out there even more and that's why we put it up and have promoted it so much. We want people to read the book.

That's our response.
Please forward to your friends and loved ones,
and as always, read more Howard Zinn,

Your friends and possible subjects of a civil suit,
the directorate at History Is A Weapon

P.S. What do other people think we should do? Call for pictures of people with their own copies of A People's History? Fight it legally? Request letters of support to be sent to HarperCollins? We'd love feedback.
P.P.S. Please spread the word. If you're twittering, you can also link to ""