on the shutdown of library.nu.
the ebook file-sharing portal library.nu, along with filelocker ifile.it, were forced to shut down following an injunction filed against the sites by a coalition of publishing companies.
as a graduate student who used library.nu to access books that my school library didn’t have or couldn’t retrieve for me due to time constraints, i will miss the website. it functioned as an alternative library, without the supply constraints that non-virtual libraries experience and construct for their patrons. of course, this being the internet, intrepid hackers have begun to fill in the gaps that library.nu has left behind; given a few weeks or months, another, more expansive, and stealthier portal will likely appear.
one unsettling point that particularly struck me about the library.nu shutdown is the attitude adopted by the publishing companies and their representatives regarding the matter. to wit:
Jens Bammel of the International Publishers Association, the umbrella organization responsible for tracking down the owners of the two sites, described the file-sharing sites as criminal outfits.
“The global publishing industry has once again shown that it can and will stand up against large-scale organised copyright crime,” Bammel says commenting on the news.
“We will not tolerate free-loaders who make unearned profits by depriving authors and publishers of their due compensation. This is an important step towards more transparent, honest, and fair trade of digital content on the Internet,” he added.
indeed, publishing is no longer the province of small publishers contracting with authors and individual booksellers to provide content to readers; it is a global industry earning revenue in the billions of dollars (yes, billions). much like other media conglomerates (and any corporate entity dealing with products and transmissions falling under the banner of intellectual property), book publishers are particularly interested in “protecting,” i.e., policing their copyrights and copyrighted material. however, it is a matter of debate as to what, precisely, the publishing companies are trying to protect, as is the question of what constitutes “large-scale organised copyright crime.” for example, book authors often transfer the copyright(s) attached to their work to their publishers in exchange for royalties, or a cut of the net profits; this may amount to only ten percent or less of a book’s cover price. in this context, how is bammel’s mention of authors being deprived of “due compensation” for their work due to the existence and use not an appropriation of the individual author in the service of corporate interests? moreover, sites like library.nu are not substantively different — artificial supply constraints aside, of course — from a public library. someone at some point had possession of a particular book; the books themselves are not being exchanged between discrete users at a profit; and much of the material found on library.nu were specialized academic texts that were often either prohibitively expensive for the average user/consumer or unavailable altogether. additionally, the practices and processes that constitute “fair use” of copyrighted material are also constitutive, rather than prescriptive, and are constantly shifting and subject to change. labeling library.nu as a “criminal outfit” effectively ascribes a negative value judgment to this practice of cultural transmission, which in turn precludes the possibility of having a useful and necessary discussion about the constitution of fair use, of intellectual property, and of copyright in and of itself.
beyond these considerations, it is the policing, surveilling, and disciplining of knowledge and cultural transmissions that is at the crux of the library.nu shutdown. as i mentioned, the portal was an immensely useful resource to academics and researchers who would have otherwise been deprived of access to specialized texts in their fields. (speaking of academia, authorship, and compensation, i suggest checking out george monbiot’s piece in the guardian regarding the state of academic publishing. hint: it’s a racket of the highest order). publishers of these texts in particular are well aware of the small publishing runs and exorbitant price tags of their published stock; so far, they have done nothing to make these texts more accessible, all the while claiming that they make little to no profit on their endeavors. the authors of these texts sometimes never see a cent from the publisher for their work, making publishers’ arguments about authorial compensation moot. it is also not a matter of money; publishers claimed losses of $11 million from library.nu, a drop in the bucket considering their gross revenues. it is a matter, however, of controlling access to knowledge production, to cultural disseminations (particularly ones that may prove subversive), and effectively, to power itself. it is a conservative attempt to protect the structures of global capitalism and the status quo by patrolling access. it is also a refusal to substantively engage with technology and the paradigm shift that is taking place as i type this.
while “piracy” and “theft” as the intellectual property defense industry defines it is very much alive, and alternatives like creative commons are in play, the shutdown of library.nu poses questions that we must engage with. the forced shutdowns of torrent sites, peer-to-peer sharing services, and filelocker sites are expected at this point, but when the industry focuses on limiting access to texts, a new set of troubling dimensions must be contended with.