[permaculture] The disappearing virtual library - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
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Fri Mar 2 15:23:19 EST 2012
[This will affect the permaculture world.]
The disappearing virtual library - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
"The shutdown of library.nu is creating a virtual showdown between
would-be learners and the publishing industry."
Los Angeles, CA - 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.
The texts ranged 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 remarkable effort of
collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly:
guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a
criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must
alone count as a triumph of civilisation.
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
They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.
Pirating to learn
"The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people
who want desperately to learn."
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.
Maybe they were students once, but went on to find jobs and found
families. We made them in some cases - we gave them a four-year taste
of the life of the mind before sending them on their way with
unsupportable loans. In other cases, they made themselves, by hook or
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? The publishers think it
is a great success in the war on piracy; that it will lead to more
revenue and more control over who buys what, if not who reads what.
The pirates - the people who create and run such sites - think that
shutting down library.nu will only lead to a thousand more sites,
stronger and better than before.
But both are missing the point: the global demand for learning and
scholarship is not being met by the contemporary publishing industry.
It cannot be, not with the current business models and the prices. The
users of library.nu - these barbarians at the gate of the publishing
industry and the university - are legion.
They live all over the world, but especially in Latin and South
America, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in India. It's
hard to get accurate numbers, but any perusal of the tweets mentioning
library.nu or the comments on blog posts about it reveal that the main
users of the site are the global middle class. They are not the truly
poor, they are not slum-denizens or rural poor - but nonetheless they
do not have much money. They are the real 99 per cent (as compared to
the Euro-American 1 per cent).
They may be scientists or scholars themselves: some work in schools,
universities or corporations, others are doubly outside of the elite
learned class - jobholders whose desire to learn is and will only ever
be an avocation. They are a global market engaged in what we in the
elite institutions of the world are otherwise telling them to do all
the time: educate yourself; become scholars and thinkers; read and
think for yourselves; bring civilisation, development and modernity to
Sharing is caring
Library.nu was making that learning possible where publishers have
not. It made a good show of being a "book review" site - it was called
library.nu after all, and not "bookstore.nu". It was not cluttered
with advertisements, nor did it "suggest" other books constantly. It
gave straight answers to straightforward searches, and provided user
reviews of the 400,000 or more books in the database.
It was only the fact that library.nu included a link to another site
("sharehosting" sites like ifile.it, megaupload.com, or mediafire.com)
containing the complete version of a digital text that brought
library.nu into the realm of what passes for crime these days.
But 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 unauthorised copy in your brain - is
also made illegal.
But library.nu shared books; it did not sell them. If it made any
money, it was not from the texts themselves, but from advertising
revenue. As with Napster in 1999, library.nu was facilitating
discovery: the ability to search deeper and deeper into the musical or
scholarly tastes fellow humans and to discover their connections that
no recommendation algorithm will ever be able to make. In their effort
to control this market, publishers alongside the movie and music
industry have been effectively criminalising sharing, learning and
creating - not stealing.
Users of library.nu did not have to upload texts to the site in order
to use it, but they were rewarded if they did. There were formal rules
(and informal ones, to be sure), concerning how one might "level up"
in the library.nu community. The site developed as websites do, adding
features here and there, and obviously expanding its infrastructure as
necessary. The administrators of the site maintained absolute control
over who could participate and who could not - no doubt in order to
protect the site from skulking FBI agents and enthusiastic newbies
Even a casual observer could have seen that the frequent changes to
the site were the effects of the cat-and-mouse game underway as law
authorities and publishers sought to understand and eventually seek
legal action against this community. In the end, it was only by
donating to the site that law authorities discovered the real people
behind the site - pirates too have PayPal accounts.
Shutting down learning
The winter of 2012 has seen a series of assaults on file-sharing sites
in the wake of the failed SOPA and PIPA legislation. Mega-upload.com
(the brainchild of eccentric master pirate Kim Dotcom - he legally
changed his name in 2005) was seized by the US Department of Justice;
torrent site btjunkie.com voluntarily closed down for fear of
In the last few days before they closed for good, library.nu winked in
and out of existence, finally (and ironically), displayed a page
saying "this domain has been revoked by .nu domain" (the island nation
of Niue). It prominently displays a link to a book (on Amazon!) called
Blue Latitudes, about the voyage of Captain Cook. A story about that
other kind of pirate branches off here.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? One thing it means is
that these barbarians - these pirates who are also scholars - are
angry. We scholars have long been singing the praises of education,
learning, mutual aid and the virtues of getting a good degree. We
scholars have been telling the world of desperate learners to do just
what they are doing, if not in so many terms.
So there are a lot of angry young middle-class learners in the world
this month. Some are existentially angry about the injustice of this
system, some are pragmatically angry they must now spend $100 - if
they even have that much - on a textbook instead of on themselves or
All of them are angry that what looked to everyone like the new
horizon of learning - and the promise of the vaunted new digital
economy - has just disappeared behind the dark eclipse of a Munich
judge's cease and desist order.
Writers and scholars in Europe and the US are complicit in the
shutdown. The publishing companies are protecting themselves and their
profits, but they do so with the assent, if not the active support, of
those who still depend on them. They are protecting us - we scholars -
or so they say. These barbarians - these desperate learners - are
stealing our property and should be made to pay for it.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Christopher M Kelty is an Associate Professor of Information Studies
and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is
the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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