Nearly two years ago, on February 2012, one of the largest library on Earth burned, and no “mainstream” media, no politician denounced it. The reason for this silence is that the library was “illegal” and that it wasn’t a physical one.
Library.nu was by far the biggest public library on the internet, with a catalogue of about 400,000 to 1,000,000 books. And, as Christopher Kelty, whom I’ll quote extensively in this essay, said, it contained “not just any books – not romance novels or the latest best-sellers – but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities. The texts ranges from so-called “orphan works” (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarquable effort of collective connoisseurship.”
Library.nu was indeed an academic library, the kind of one you would expect universities and research institutes to have. But the library closed. It vanished from the internet. It was, to use the physical library metaphor, as if one morning on your way to the library, you found that the entire building had disappeared. Where the library used to be, you’d find a single book on the ground, Blue Latitudes (before shutting down for good and displaying an Error 404 page, Library.nu redirected to the Amazon page of this book).
Library.nu was shut down along with its cyber file locker, ifile.it, by the injunction of a German Judge, at the request of seventeen scholarly publishers. The magnitude of this disaster is difficult to grasp.
While the library of Alexandria probably had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (the objective of Ptolemy II was to reach half a million), there were multiple scrolls for each work, and many duplicates; thus the number of individual works is unlikely to have been as high as 100,000 – between a tenth and a quarter of the number of titles library.nu made available.
Despite this mind boggling estimate, no one seemed to care about the end of Library.nu. Torrent Freak, the Huffington Post and Christopher Kelty’s op-ed on Aljazeera English’s website were roughly the only news coverage the event had. Why? Because the website offered all these works for free. It was indeed a copyright infringing site, like The Pirate Bay but for scholars. And scholarly publishers didn’t like the fact that researchers could access publications for free instead of paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars from their own pocket or from the institutions they were affiliated with (if they had the chance to be affiliated with an institution). Publishers went at war with the site. They sent cease and desist letters which had little impact. So they hired a law firm, Lausen Rechtsanwälte, to try to find who was in charge of Library.nu to sue him and take his website down.
The law firm, which also provides “lobbying services” (they try to screw you by defending big corporations’ interests at the European Commission), estimated the revenue of Library.nu and ifile.it : “The operators made an estimated annual turnover of €8 million ($10,602,400US) from advertising buys on the sites, donations and sales of premium-level accounts, making it one of the most significant piracy websites in the world.” It’s hard to say how Lausen Rechtsanwälte came up with this ludicrous figure, but their estimate is probably totally false. Let me explain why.
Library.nu had virtually no ad or very few, and its traffic was estimated to be at about 30,000 visitors per month, thus any advertising revenue must have been quite small. Remember this site is distributing academic publications, not porn and movies like The Pirate Bay for example. Free science books won’t drive as much traffic as free movies… Donations were also coming in small quantities (Library.nu wasn’t Wikipedia), the website just had a “donate” button and wasn’t actively seeking donations. The premium accounts were of course a source of revenue, but there were little of them. Finally, Lausen Rechtsanwälte didn’t take into account the costs of running such big websites (because, you know, 400,000 – 1,000,000 books? That’s quite a lot of technical costs). But the publishers needed something big, to make them look like victims, so they made this estimation up. And to put that in perspective, Elsevier, one of the seventeen publishing houses which sued Library.nu, made a €6,902 million (that’s nearly $9,5 billion) turnover in 2011 (the year Library.nu was at its apogee, and less than a year before it closed), up 2% from 2010 – it doesn’t look like Library.nu was damaging their business.
Then the law firm tried to find a way to identify the “operators” of the website. How did they succeed? The guy behind Library.nu made a terrible mistake while setting up the donation service: he used Paypal, which is not a good idea when you want anonymity. When you made a donation, the receipt you received from Paypal clearly mentioned the name of the man who owned Library.nu. And when the investigators looked at which bank account the money from the donations was going, it turned out to be either his bank account or one with his name attached to it.
If Bitcoins had been used, maybe Library.nu would still be up and running because of the total anonymity it allows (or at least it would have helped the website stay online a little longer – Law Enforcement Officials would have needed to use other ways to find who owned Library.nu). ifile.it and Library.nu were allegedly owned by the same person, an Irish twenty-something from Galway with a degree in IT who asked for his name to be withheld. I’ll call him Jack.
John Mooney reported that Jack’s venture “showed meagre profits until 2010, when it recorded income of more than €92,000”. So though the revenues of Library.nu aren’t well known, we know for sure that Jack didn’t become a billionaire with his website. (if he wanted to become one, he should have tried to get an MBA and a great job at Elsevier).
And that’s how Lausen Rechtsanwälte was able to close Library.nu. They discovered who owned it, so they were able to use the judiciary system to pressure the guy to stop his activities. Threatened with a massive fine, Jack, understandably, preferred to close the website rather than go to prison.
With the poor media coverage, when Library.nu burned, at first people didn’t understand what was happening. Then the news reach them through Torrent Freak or directly from Jack, who had set up an automatic response when you sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org:
“Hello (this is an automated courtesy reply) Your email to Library.nu admin has been received. The website is shutting down due to legal bullshit :(, no further comments…
Deceived users went on Reddit to mourn the death of Library.nu, they also shared their thoughts in the comment sections of the news articles.
On Reddit, user tripedal said “This was an invaluable resource for international academics. My doctoral research has taken a significant blow due to this recent shutdown.”
katapilla wrote “library.nu was an awesome site for the fact that some very old manuscript or books that are out of print were uploaded and taken care of by people who love to share hard-to-find books that can’t even be found in the bookstore anymore. As for the publishers who want to shut down sources of illegal book sharing sites, they may have to shut down the entire world wide web or Google; which I highly doubt it that modernization will go backward to the time when no internet existed.”
riziq32 was even more raw: “Those who burnt Alexandria are the same who took down Library.nu. This is a terrible loss for the students and the self-taught mainly, especially those of the third-world who, due to exchange rates and imports restriction, can’t afford to buy a 100 dollars academic book just to see if it’s useful or not. This isn’t an attack on piracy but an attack to the lovers of knowledge who found in Library.nu a tool to bypass geographic and economic difficulties and reach knowledge.”
The most amazing comment on Reddit though was made by PhilScholar. He wrote a short essay (which is too big to be put here in its entirety) that I would have loved to write myself. Read it, it’s amazing.
On Torrent Freak, many academics were just really mad about the burning of Library.nu
Sonia Useinova for example: “I teach at a leading university in Russia, I barely survive on my salary and with an average price of a monograph in my field of studies being well over $50 there’s no question of buying anything. No foreign scientific literature finds its way in our library, so Library.nu was one of the few ways I could find of reading books I have to.”
An anon asked “it’s a library, since when was that considered evil?”
User Angry Voter was really, really mad: “The violent anti-sharing parasites are a threat to civilization. They are the type of dunces that would have locked up the last copy of Euclid’s Elements and not let anyone read it.”
And Dan Harlow neatly explained why the burning of Library.nu was terrible “The thing that is unique about this is that Library.nu offered access to books that were nearly inaccessible through any other means (such as out of print) or were copies of scholarly works that cost hundreds of dollars to purchase through legal avenues. In a way this is like losing the Library of Alexandria all over again because many of these works will once again be seen by only a handful of people who either have fortunate access to them or the money to buy them. In fact, many academics used Library.nu as well. This was not just a book sharing site for people wanting the latest King novel, but a place where historians and mathematicians could easily gain access to important findings and research (both new, obscure and old) without having to jump through hoops, cut red-tape or spend a ton of their own money to access. That’s why this, above all the recent file sharing losses, is the one that hurts the most. Great research will now linger in a moldy corner of some publishers archive with a $100 price tag attached to it. The information inside will hardly be seen which hurts the author and the end consumer.”
Bloggers were also angry as hell about the burning of Library.nu. French blogger Yann Leroux wrote (in french) that a “greater crime than theft [copyright infringement] is the captation of knowledge and culture” He explained well that Library.nu did what traditional publishers are incapable of doing: making scientific research accessible to everyone. And closing it is a shame, comparable to the loss of the Library of Alexandria.
The guys who burned Library.nu are like the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451.
If the publishers want less piracy, they should innovate to make their works more accessible by having for example a subscription service like Spotify, but for academic papers – a single website or app where you could find every book/article from any publisher. But the publishers are incapable to agree on putting in common their works, even if it would benefit customers and themselves in the long run. They don’t care. They only think about short-term profits; the only time academic publishers seem to agree and to be capable of working together is when they’re lobbying Congress or when they’re suing websites such as Library.nu.
Without Library.nu, many researchers are now probably missing lots and lots of references for their works. Library.nu had a very powerful search engine, but now that it’s gone, looking for specific titles is a lot harder. If you don’t have access to a top university library and you’re searching for an out of print book, you’re basically stuck. And if you don’t have a lot of money, even if you find the book or article you’re looking for, you’re probably not going to spend $30 for an article or hundreds of dollars for a book just to see if it’s relevant to your research or to just read one chapter of it. Library.nu was incredibly useful for this kind of usage. There is no legal nor illegal alternative to it as of today.
Restricted access to knowledge is nothing new; it has always existed. Ancient greek erudite used to keep knowledge for themselves and transmit it to a selected few. In the Middle Ages, knowledge was tightly guarded by the Church. With the printing press however, knowledge could be reproduced at very little cost. New knowledge and ideas could spread like wildfire. But of course, the Church and governments restricted its use at first – censoring, according privileges to some printing houses and denying the use of a printing press to others. In France, on January 13, 1535, a law was enacted (at the request of the Catholic Church) which forced the closure of all bookshops and stipulated death penalty by hanging for anybody using a printing press. This was less than a century after the printing press had been invented. But thanks to pirate printers, books were still sold in France. The law was ineffective and was of course dumped eventually. The same thing is happening with the Internet today. We’re in the early days of this technology, and it’s allowing a massive sharing of knowledge and ideas. And just as they did with the printing press, governments are trying to pass laws restricting usage of the Internet.
SOPA/ACTA for example (this week marks the second anniversary of the repealing of the law) came very close to be enacted. Without the uprising of activists around the world, it might have been enforced, and would have restricted free speech and, of course, file sharing, increasing the legal sanctions against websites such as MegaUpload or Library.nu.
Russia has its own version of SOPA, and it has been enforced since August 2013.
And the TPP is the new, hardcore draft of SOPA. It would increase the monopolies copyright creates and could kill the Internet as we know it. Wikileaks released the draft of the chapter on Intellectual Property. For analysis of the leaked document, see The Guardian , The Washington Post, Concurring Opinions and KEI Online.
As for Library.nu, as Christopher Kelty in his op-ed for Aljazeera said: “The legality of library.nu is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can’t be long before reading a book – making an unauthorized copy in your brain – is also made illegal”.
These restrictions are intolerable and must stop. Scientific publications must be free to access – or very cheap. Open Access is the future of publishing. And Creative Commons Licences are the future of Copyright. These laws are “a dying industries’ last charge to save themselves from oblivion” as Reddit user Javier wrote about the legal actions against Library.nu.
They are due to the intense lobbying Hollywood and publishing houses are doing to protect their interests. The Authors Guild v. Google case is a good exemple of editors trying to protect themselves from fair use.
“The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading , learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.” Christopher Kelty wrote. To complete what he said, I’d like to quote Denis Diderot, who, in his essay “Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie” (which doesn’t seem to have an english translation) wrote: “Entre les différentes causes qui ont concouru à nous tirer de la barbarie, il ne faut pas oublier l’invention de l’art typographique. Donc, décourager, abattre, avilir cet art, c’est travailler à nous y replonger et faire ligue avec la foule des ennemis de la connaissance humaine.” [Amongst the different causes which contributed to lifting us from barbarism, we must not forget the invention of the typographic art. Therefore, dispiriting, pulling down, degrading this art, it’s trying to replunge us in barbarism and ganging with the crowd of enemies of human knowledge.] Of course the “typographic art” refers to the printing press, but we could replace the term by “the internet” and it would be quite a powerful statement against lobbyists, lawmakers and publishing houses which try to restrain free circulation of knowledge on the internet.
Kelty ended his article with a touch of hope “To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher’s black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.”
Even if there is no real alternative to Library.nu two years after its destruction, it’s only a matter of time before we see it rising again from its ashes. Someone will eventually fill the gap the burning of Library.nu created. Publishing houses and their friends in power can’t put the genie back in the bottle. They’re fighting a war they already lost.