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No-guilt downloads: free books, music and movies

Where to find public-domain and other free works on the web

"Information wants to be free," new-media gadfly Stewart Brand exclaimed famously in 1984. Brand has yet to start giving away his own books online, but others have, in the belief that word-of-mouth marketing will yield a bigger payoff in the long run.

A few brave musicians similarly post free copies of their albums online and allow people to record and distribute their concerts for free. In most cases, the creators retain copyright to the books or recordings, but they permit fans to make copies for their own use.

Many other works – books, music and films – are in the public domain. This means that you can download them, upload them, package and even sell them.

The Internet Archive pulls together several long-standing, independent electronic book libraries, including the Million Book Project and Project Gutenberg, which account for more than 20,000 free books between them. Ibiblio.org's Ebooks collection features, among other things, technical and historical works, and the Digital Book Index lists 90,000 titles, of which more than 50,000 are free.

Most e-books are in plain-text format, though some appear in Adobe's PDF or LizardTech's DjVu format.

You can read plain-text e-books in any ordinary text editor, including Microsoft Word or Notepad, but I find the free Windows version of Palm Digital Media's EReader utility convenient for formatting the pages and bookmarking my.

Most e-books reside in the public domain, though a small number of contemporary volumes have been released by their authors under the Creative Commons license. For an explanation of how this license works, visit www.creativecommons.org or read Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig's free (of course) 2004 book Free Culture.

Up-and-coming music artists have been posting their studio work online for a while, and bigger-selling acts are starting to do the same. Alternative country-rock band Wilco offered for a limited time its most recent album, A Ghost Is Born, as a free download through Apple's ITunes. Many more bands allow their fans to tape, digitise and distribute their live shows online.

The Internet Archive's Live Music Archive offers thousands of high-quality live recordings of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Cowboy Junkies, Little Feat, Grateful Dead and scores more.

Most of these shows are encoded in one of two lossless file-compression formats: .flac (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or .shn (Shorten). Unlike MP3 files, lossless formats lose none of their original recording quality when compressed.

The easiest way to decode .flac files is with the drag-and-drop FLAC Frontend utility. To do the same with .shn files, grab the MKW Audio Compression Tool (commonly seen as "mkwACT"), which also serves as a handy free MP3 encoder/decoder.

In some cases, you'll need to install the BitTorrent file-sharing program to download files.

Compared with the selection of books and music, free film pickings are a bit slim. Nevertheless, the Internet Archive's Movie Archive offers various films and videos in MPEG format, including such cultural icons as Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness, plus westerns, animation, and much more.


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