So I learn, from an article by Prof. Christopher Kelty at — of all places –aljazeera.com. Kelty’s article is required reading: READ IT! A couple of snippets:
Last week a website called “library.nu” disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free.
And 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.
And so it did — books that one never knew even existed could be located there. Not that the site actually hosted any books; it provided links to places on the internet where the books could be found, and a search tool.
To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people – namely the users of the site – it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees?
They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.
We need hardly ask if the judge required the plaintiffs to show evidence of loss of income. And why was it a German judge?
On Feb.13, 2012, a judge in Munich granted an injunction against Library.nu and iFile.it. Seventeen different publishing companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany have accused the two websites of illegally sharing online book files. Each publisher listed 10 illegally copied books in their injunction. One illegal book copy can lead to a 250,000-euro fine or six months in prison.
Even this pro-publisher site thinks the penalties are draconian. The DailyActivist rightly points out that the main losers are people in search of learning who could never afford the ridiculous prices demanded for academic books anyway. The Hindu is Mourning an ‘illegal’ treasure trove.
There is an angry, disgruntled buzz in several universities across India as students discover that their rock of refuge during research has been shut down by the order of a court in Munich. …
While Tom Allen, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Publishers, considers the injunction “a significant step in shutting down two major rogue websites stealing content from publishers and others”, and an indication of the need for additional tools to expedite such action, the ends achieved by the injunction remain suspect.
Library.nu, for innumerable users, was a source of otherwise inaccessible research material. The claim of publishing houses that this e-book piracy was leading to mammoth losses is, therefore, questionable. Shutting library.nu only makes a huge mass of research inaccessible to a global audience.
Some of the guilty firms are named in this article at law.com. They include Wiley, McGraw Hill, and Pearson Education. An injunction was issued in the regional Landgericht Munich court in Germany, because “German case law gives courts clear jurisdiction over share hosters”, which is not the case elsewhere. The site turned out to be based in Ireland, but “European Union enforcement directives enable enforcement of German-issued injunctions in Ireland”.
So the excesses of German copyright law, which has rendered the web a German-free zone, are now to be exported to the rest of Europe via some directives by the (very unpopular) European Union?
In February of this year library.nu (previously known as Gigapedia) was shut down by a coalition of publishing companies (including Cambridge University Press) for copyright infringement. The site hosted more than 400,000 e-books for free, but the content focused on scholarly texts, not best-sellers. Library.nu’s catalogue was the world’s most extensive free collection of online academic works – encompassing everything from agricultural manuals to the latest philosophical monographs.
The closure of library.nu was met with dismay in online communities, drawing heart-felt comparisons with the burning of the Libraries of Alexandria; scholarly lawbreakers consoled each other with promises of terabytes of books, downloaded and whisked away to personal hard-drives before the site closed forever. A review of Twitter mentions for library. nu reveals an international user base; tech-savvy would-be scholars of all ages, who might have pursued academia had economic expediency not forced them into other careers.The problem is the publishing industry’s business model and prices. Academics and institutions need to make money to continue their research, no-one denies this – but this system restricts scholarly research to an academic elite. The global middle class – not the European or American middle class who comprise the economic 1%; but residents of Latin and South America, Africa and India – simply cannot afford access to materials.
Their academic input may come to nothing but who cares? They represent the values that all academic institutions preach: read and learn; expand your mind; better yourself and improve your community.
Cambridge University Press is another culprit, then.
A report (in German) shows the head of the German booksellers association, one Gottfried Honnefelder, apparently claiming that there can be no culture without copyright. If so, it is disturbing that German booksellers can’t find an educated man to represent them.
I learned of this in the week when this story ran; that the owner of The Hobbit turned out to be an unattractive-sounding American named Saul Zaentz, who demanded money under threat of legal action from a small pub in England of the same title. Zaentz backed off when faced with massive negative publicity.
We all know how the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings came into being. They were composed by an Oxford academic so poor that he couldn’t afford to hire a typist, and published by Allen and Unwin. How in the world did these texts come to be the property of Mr Saul Zaentz, whoever he might be? And what creative input did the agreeable Mr Zaentz bring to these works?
The answer to the first is that probably the “rights” — the copyrights — were traded around various rich men for ever increasing sums of money, none of which went to J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator. The answer to the second is a monosyllable: none.
How, precisely, does the copyright law as it has now evolved benefit the creator? Have we not reached the stage where copyright in books — I am not discussing the special problems of movies or music — is now damaging the public interest?
Let’s give Dr Kelty the final comment:
In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies’ patents and profits.
The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is – legally speaking – nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever – and also illegal – local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.
Why doesn’t the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy – and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.
Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route – making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.
But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off – especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot – or will not – deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.
Instead, they print a handful of copies – less than 100, often – and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.
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.
What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?