The Gutenberg Project is an international enterprise whose goal is to post classic literary works on the Internet. Since works of literature are protected by copyright, the project is careful to post only works whose copyrights have expired and are now in the public domain.

Israel has its own version of the Gutenberg Project: the Ben-Yehuda Project. Who can fail to love such a project? It is entirely staffed by volunteers, and there is no law-breaking. Just a lot of love for texts and literature.

But the Gutenberg Project's basic premise - taking material that is in the public domain - is now in danger. The New York Times reported this week on the project's Australian branch, which put the full text of Margaret Mitchell's classic "Gone with the Wind" on the Internet and almost got slapped with a lawsuit.

Mitchell published her novel in 1936. Under American copyright law, the work is protected for 95 years, or until 2031. When this law was first enacted, at the end of the 18th century, the period of protection was only 14 years, with an option to extend it for an additional 14 years. The copyright period was extended twice, and in 1909, the law was amended to state that works such as "Gone with the Wind" would be protected for 28 years, with an option of extending for an additional 28 years. But since the mid-1960s, the copyright period has been extended 11 more times, and it now stands at 95 years (or 70 years after the author's death).

Not every country agrees that this is how works of culture should be treated. In many European countries, the copyright expires 50 years from the date the work is published. Thus Elvis Presley's early songs will enter the public domain in Europe in another two months.

In Australia, and in Israel as well, the copyright expires 50 years after the author's death. Mitchell died in Atlanta on August 16, 1949. Thus according to Australian law, her signature work entered the public domain in 1999, so there was no reason not to publish it on Project Gutenberg's Australian Web site.

But far be it from a country such as the United States to allow its copyright holders to lose the profits they are supposed to be able to collect almost a century after the work was published. The Australian site received a letter from lawyers representing Houghton Mifflin, the company responsible for Mitchell's intellectual property, which demanded that the site immediately remove the link to Mitchell's text. The Gutenberg Project volunteers gave in.

This incident raises questions that will occupy Internet buffs for years to come. For instance, can the long arm of the American law oblige a group of Australian volunteers to obey it? It turns out that the answer is yes. Trade agreements between the U.S. and Australia oblige the Australian authorities to protect the intellectual property of American artists. Because of similar agreements, Israel is also obligated to fight copyright violators who distribute pirated discs of American songs.

The U.S. is one of the world's most zealous protectors of its citizens' intellectual property. But this American zealotry has recently crossed the line into fundamentalism. At the urging of American record and film companies - some of the wealthiest U.S. corporations, which donate millions of dollars to politicians - the U.S. enacted draconian laws that have no parallel elsewhere in the world, whose sole goal is to supply protection that borders on the absurd to cultural works that in the past would have entered the public domain.

Moreover, the U.S. obligates countries with which it signs trade agreements to include a pledge to protect American intellectual property in these agreements. And since no one wants to pick a quarrel with the U.S., in practice, the world is required to enforce American law.

Will American copyright law become the law of the Internet? Does this imply that the most extreme law in every field will be the one that binds every law enforcement agency on the planet? It is hard to exaggerate the danger to cultural freedom worldwide, which has found expression over the Internet, if the answers to these questions turns out to be affirmative.