Pirate libraries and access

By: Tessel Renzenbrink

Library Genesis is the largest pirate library in the world with over a million non-fiction ebooks and 20 million science articles. Libgen.info is one of many open source libraries hosted on RuNet, the Russian segment of the internet. Their radical open access is a necessary component for the development of emerging economies, argues Bodó Balázs. Bodó Balázs is an economist and piracy researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam. In this interview he talks about contemporary censorship, the history of book piracy and the importance of access to cultural works.

Underground book practices

‘Russia has a rich history of underground book practices’, says Balázs, ‘it was necessary to survive the Soviet era. Censorship not only suppressed news and politics that was controversial or contradicting party lines. Censorship was so effective it also ran deeply in the field of science. Humanities were the primary candidates for political censorship but it even affected natural sciences. ‘There was a push back against that and there were many vehicles to circumvent political censorship.’ Shadow networks and black book markets rose up to facilitate the distribution of knowledge. People engaged in the activity of samizdat which means self-publishing in Russian. They would receive a copy of an illegal news bulletin and carbon copy it on a typewriter or a basic screen printer and pass it along to people they trusted. ‘These are effective underground distribution networks that are difficult to take down because few people in the network know who the original editor is’, says Balázs. ‘The network also allows for two-way communication as important news traveled back to the editors through the same channels.’ But limited access to knowledge wasn’t the result of political censorship alone, economic shortage also played a role. Books of Fyodor Dostoevsky, for instance, weren’t censored but paper shortage caused failure to meet demand. Foreign publications could be inaccessible because they had to be paid for in hard currency. In response the Soviet Union knew a maturely developed infrastructure of black markets for cheaply reproduced cultural works.

Freedom and the rise of the internet

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 coinciding with the rise of the internet led to an explosion of knowledge distribution. The convergence of new found freedom and emerging distribution technologies was fertile ground for the radically open online pirate libraries that are still in operation today.

Challenging the gatekeeper status

Many of these the pirate libraries are truly open source. They do not only make articles and books freely available but also allow the download of the entire database to start hosting one’s own library. The libraries publish themselves. In that sense the shadow libraries not only challenge legal distributors but are more radical than most other pirate sites as well, says Balázs. He explains: ‘If you look at how money is made on the legal internet by companies like Amazon, Netflix and Google, it is all about the centralization of control. The business model is to control access to resources, they are the gatekeepers to audiences, to content, to advertisers. In the domain of digital technologies where there is no cost of making a copy, the money is made by creating artificial scarcity in a post-scarcity world. ‘Piracy can be seen as the anti-thesis to this artificial scarcity. They break down the paywalls, the artificial barriers between audiences and content. But pirates aren’t immune to the power of control. Often, pirate networks are as strictly controlling access to certain critical resources as Amazon does. They control the website, the users, the access, the rules. They provide free access in some sense but they are not fundamentally questioning the logic of control. ‘The Pirate Bay is the poster child of piracy but they only made their own database available when they were threatened by a shutdown. You can find a Pirate Bay copy on their site but it is not regularly updated. They don’t publish themselves because they want to control the resources they have. ‘This is not the case with these pirate libraries. They took a radical step and took piracy to its logical final conclusion. They publish themselves, they make sure that everything that is necessary to copy the entire service is updated all the time. They make sure that the survival of the texts is not tied to the survival of the service that provides them.’

Contemporary censorship

The legal models for monetizing publication and distribution of copyrighted works may result in new types of censorship, according to Balázs: ‘We often think of censorship as political: the conscious interference with the circulation of texts. But economic factors may also have the effect of certain texts not being available.’ For instance, publishers have huge catalogs with works they own the copyright to but their resources are limited. They’ll prioritize the publication of bestsellers, rendering books with less market value inaccessible. The concentration of distribution channels in the hands of a few, often American, companies gives them a lot of power. They control what is available and determine the revenue models: who gets paid and the amount they get paid. The tools put in place to enforce copyright are no different from the ones used for political censorship. The methods the British government mandates to ban The Pirate Bay such as website blocking and filtering are the same as the Chinese government uses to restrict the flow of information. ‘The only difference is intent’, says Balázs.

Book piracy in its historical context

Digital piracy is a relatively new phenomenon but book piracy is as old as the printing press. In his paper Coda: A short history of Book Piracy, Balázs traces back book piracy to the 15th century, when the name, in fact, was coined in reference to pirates disturbing the established order at sea. Balázs identifies three benefits that recurrently occured under the pressure of pirates competing with legitimate printing bodies: book prices went down, literacy was stimulated and censorship was circumvented. Through the centuries it was often the case that a few privileged book printers monopolized the market. The monopoly was kept in place by an alliance between incumbent publishers and state and church authorities. In return for the right to censorship, authorities granted the publishers protection against competitors. And pirates were always present. Operating at the fringes of the official system they undermined the status quo, often to the benefit of the readers. In the paper Balázs presents a couple of telling examples: English incumbent publishers considered books a luxury good and produced beautiful but expensive publications. Pirates produced copies on cheap paper to service an entire new market: the poor. And literacy soared. Books that weren’t available on the official French market due to censorship, were made available through the distribution channels of Dutch and Swiss publishers, who, of course, made a nice buck out of it. Often these cross-border operating publishers were legitimate and respected business people in their own country, while scorned as pirates elsewhere in Europe.

The United States: pirate nation

In his historical overview Balázs identifies the United States as ‘one of the chief pirate nations’ during its time as a developing country. Copyright law did not extend to foreign authors which meant that British books could be produced cheaply. Low prices meant wide-spread accessibility to foreign works which played an important role in the development of the young nation. In his paper Balázs quotes the passionate argument of a publisher before the US senate in favor of continuing to deny foreigners copyright. ‘All the riches of English literature are ours. English authorship comes to us as free as the vital air, untaxed, unhindered, even by the necessity of translation; and the question is, shall we tax it, and thus impose a barrier to the circulation of intellectual and moral light? Shall we build up a dam, to obstruct the flow of the rivers of knowledge?’ (Solberg 1886:251) European publishers were quite frustrated with the Americans pirating their works. But the piracy of foreign works remained more or less state sanctioned until the early 20th century. By that time the US had become a net-exporter of cultural goods such as movies and started a slow process of joining international copyright treaties for the benefit of copyright protection.

Mutual enlightenment

Today the US is one of the fiercest lobbyists for Intellectual Property (IP) enforcement through international trade agreements. But this means denying developing countries the kind of access the US enjoyed during its time of build up. ‘On the surface of it, it is all about respecting IP and that is a fair proposition that I can respect’, says Balázs. ‘But it has been historically proven, that piracy is a very powerful vehicle of modernization, the US is the primary example of that. And by strictly enforcing copyrights on a global level you are denying countries this development path. ‘Some argue that this global enforcement of IP is a way of the West to maintain its global leading position and it is a very sophisticated tool of locking in global inequalities. You condemn developing countries to a developing position because you make sure you dictate the terms of their access to knowledge.’ Balázs recalls the example of medicine patents which also fall under IP law. ‘When AIDS medicine is sold in sub-Saharan Africa at US prices, you are actually killing people’ he says. ‘There are legal instruments which exempt developing countries from IP enforcement when it comes to life saving medicine. The question is, can we argue for a similar type of exception when it is not about saving the lives of HIV patients but when it concerns access to health science or anti-corruption literature. My argument is that, yes, this the same type of basic resource that you need as a developing country. ‘Piracy is often portrayed as a copyright problem, a problem for Hollywood and solved by copyright lawyers. But it is not, this is a symptom of big social problems.’

The future of access to scientific knowledge

There are steps being taken to address the problem of accessibility to scientific knowledge. There is a push for open access and more people are questioning the legitimacy of monopolies. ‘But it is a slow and painful process’, says Balázs. ‘It is difficult to alter the course of this system that has been in place for centuries. ‘Piracy may not be the right solution because it suffers a number of problems. But until we reach the open access paradise it serves two important functions. For one, it solves the access problem on the short term. And second, it will always be there as a threat. As long as rightsholders face problems which are hard to suppress they have a strong motivation to accept a second best proposal, which, in this case is open access.’ Currently there are only two legitimate options: the conventional all-rights-reserved model and the Creative Commons (CC), a licensing system that enables creators to give users permission to legally share and alter their work. As long as those are the only two alternatives, publishing and distribution giants won’t be easily persuaded to move toward a CC model. But when you add piracy to the list of possibilities, CC suddenly looks like a great compromise. Because piracy certainly doesn’t offer a viable business model for publishers whereas with CC maybe there is. ‘You saw the same thing with music’, says Balázs. MP3.com which was founded in 1997 allowed users to listen to music online and paid musicians according to a pay-per-play model. ‘The music industry did not like it, they wanted to have full control.’ MP3.com was eventually sued into oblivion. But pirates started offering the same online services but this time without a payment model for musicians. It took them some time but finally the folks in the music industry started to look kindly on services like Spotify. ‘Piracy makes the legal permissive alternative look good if piracy is the alternative’, says Balázs. ‘We tend to look at piracy as a problem in need of a solution. But that is a misunderstanding. Piracy is a solution, to a number of problems in the legal markets, and our task is to find out what those problems really are, and whether there is a more just solution to those problems than piracy.’ You can read more from Bodó Balázs on his personal website warsystems.hu and more on shadow libraries on piracy.americanassembly.org.

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