Libraries, piracy, and the socialist calculation debate

Balázs Bodó has a 2015 paper, “Libraries in the post-scarcity era,” here is the abstract:

In the digital era where, thanks to the ubiquity of electronic copies, the book is no longer a scarce resource, libraries find themselves in an extremely competitive environment. Several different actors are now in a position to provide low cost access to knowledge. One of these competitors are shadow libraries – piratical text collections which have now amassed electronic copies of millions of copyrighted works and provide access to them usually free of charge to anyone around the globe. While such shadow libraries are far from being universal, they are able to offer certain services better, to more people and under more favorable terms than most public or research libraries. This contribution offers insights into the development and the inner workings of one of the biggest scientific shadow libraries on the internet in order to understand what kind of library people create for themselves if they have the means and if they don’t have to abide by the legal, bureaucratic and economic constraints that libraries usually face. I argue that one of the many possible futures of the library is hidden in the shadows, and those who think of the future of libraries can learn a lot from book pirates of the 21st century about how users and readers expect texts in electronic form to be stored, organized and circulated.

Much of the paper focuses on what we learn from the competitive, digital, “guerrilla” libraries of Russia — most of all Aleph — with respect to what users really want; this is a striking and original piece.

For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.


What do the guerrilla librarians of Russia want?

I was trying to find a copy of a book yesterday. With near certainty, I should be able to access it for free from a library. But I cannot access it for free online. Well, I perfectly well understand that libraries contribute to copyright holders and downloading a free copy doesn't, but I'm fairly sure that the producer of this content would actually be quite OK with people accessing free copies of that book, no matter that the publisher's contract requires otherwise.

For practical purposes, and ignoring debates about how long copyright should be or debates around fair use, I think there is a strong argument that provisions of access to quality digital versions of off-copyright works should be considered as a public good, and that this would create very high social value relative to a comparatively small amount of taxpayer resources to maintain such a library of free access works. Sure, there would be freeriders from smaller nations, but I don't think this is a big deal relative to the comparatively low cost. We should not rely on private initiatives, which will undersupply relative to the optimum. Any works which would be censored from such a library should be listed, if not provided with an explanation for the specific reason for censorship (under the principle that some works SHOULD be censored, but that we can identify who has power over us by identifying what we are not "allowed" to speak of).

Of course, I would like $0 access to all works of history. But I understand that content producers need to be compensated for their efforts in order to approach an optimal production of new works.

This is just theft masquerading as open source nonsense. An anarchist manifesto (“property is theft”), a swap meet for stolen goods. For some reason because it can be digitized and replicated at close to zero cost it’s considered OK ( and liberating) to steal content . What we learn is what users want is steal stuff at little or no risk.

I'd like some sort of feature where you can read the first 90% for free, and if you think it content is worthwhile you can send a payment to the content producer to unlock the book. Back in the day, in a bookstore, you could spend as much time with a book as you want before deciding to buy it.

But I think you are correct to state that some of the more dedicated pirates are motivated in no small part by an ideological conviction that all knowledge should be free. I see the appeal, but you also have to pay people to produce that knowledge somehow or another. They are not very open to rational debate about the value of IP protection.

Consider this though. Marginal cost of production has approached zero. But now it normally costs more to buy the book legally than it used to (and, previously, it was easy to buy a second hand copy, not possible in the digital age). Producers have captured all the gains from technology and more.

A great many of them are open to rational debate, so long as 'rational debate' is not defined as 'agreeing with your position', whatever that happens to be.

I'm thinking of left-wing anarchist types, who do not recognize private property as legitimate. Actually, I do understand that their position is also rational, so your critique is correct, but I do not think that many in this sub-category are willing to genuinely entertain the idea that a degree of copyright protection is important in the creation of worthwhile content. They are too focused on dislike of the corporations who monopolize the gains.

In such a situation, debating with such values, I would consider the "rational debate" to at least respect a system where copyright is protected but where content producers can enjoy much of the gain (allowing for the fact that publishing, marketing, etc., of content also enables the content producer to get paid for their works). I haven't had this debate too many times with such types. It's hard online. But face to face, I've found that they are quite willing to acknowledge that there is legitimacy to the other side of the argument, but essentially stick to "yeah, OK, there's that, but I don't really care, this is still how I want it". Well, I guess it's incorrect to call that "irrational".

For some reason because it can be digitized and replicated at close to zero cost it’s considered OK ( and liberating) to steal content .

We had a general understanding of fairness - authors got a number of years to make money. Then we got the work in the public domain. But they reneged on that deal. They have lobbied for longer and longer copyright protection. There is a good graphic here:

The greedy of the corporate right holders is outrageous. Mickey Mouse was produced with the expectation of 50 odd years. Walt Disney has been dead for that long. And Mickey is never going to come out of copyright. We will have to go on paying indefinitely.

Compare with someone who cured cancer. If I came up with a cure tomorrow I would get 20 years protection. Which has more social utility?

This is asinine. If they are not willing to play fair, I don't see why the rest of us should. They want to lobby for indefinitely copyright, fine. I have no intention whatsoever of ever voting to convict or otherwise co-operating with this travesty.

Using a loaded world "stealing" just degrades the meaning of the word. When you download a thing from the internet, you make another copy of it, thus increasing overall welfare. When you steal a thing from someone, you deprive the original owner of it.

This is also why we should not think of digital goods as "property". Underneath the concept of private property is the fact that if one person is using a physical good, then it prevents another person from using it; if I take a physical thing you own, you can't use it anymore. This is why stealing is immoral. However, this is not true for digital goods; digital goods can't be taken away from someone. They can only be copied. This makes the argument for labeling them as "property" much weaker.

While argument for a limited length copyright protection can be made, we should not pretend it is to "protect property" or anything like that. Copyright is and should always be thought as a limited duration monopoly granted to encourage creative arts. The creators need to be paid somehow in order to keep them producing things, but after this has been accomplished, anything digital should be made free. This is a simple question of maximizing utility.

That said, I personally think that since in the digital world propagating works is so frictionless, we should seriously start thinking if there is some other way to pay the creators instead of using the rather old fashioned copyright system. This is not as far fetched as you might think. Many artists are already funding their works by crowdfunding or voluntary payments. Many countries already have national television companies to fund creative efforts. The only thing that would be needed is to ensure that the results of these non-copyright funded campaigns are made freely available.

The 70+ year copyright terms that we have nowadays are absolutely nothing but disgusting rent seeking in its purest form. No creative work would have been left unmade if instead of almost a century, the copyright would only last 10 or 20 years. No corporate or author bases their decision to produce a movie or write a book on how much profits their grandchildren or far future stock owners of the company can extract from it. The retroactive copyright term extensions are even worse; if the original work was already produced under the old, shorter copyright monopoly, what possible good could lengthening it achieve?

Agreed. I think a lot will ultimately be pushed to Public Domain, despite rent seeking, but we live in a messy time.

There are wikipedia maintainers funded publicly and privately. The future is here, it just isn't evenly distributed

"When you steal a thing from someone, you deprive the original owner of it"

Can I make a copy of your family photos on your computer and all your data, ? I will not deprive you of the originals, you can still use them. When you die, should some anarchist grab your property instead of following the wishes in your will?,. After all you're not being deprived of anything and you may be more deserving than his lazy children. Intellectual property is property. It gives you the right to " share, redefine, rent, mortgage, pawn, sell, exchange, transfer, give away or destroy it, or to exclude others from doing these things"
Copyright laws may well be too burdensome, but they are the laws. You can work to change it. You can use your crowdfunding efforts to change it.

"Can I make a copy of your family photos on your computer" - this first part isn't fair argument, because it confuses the issue with violating people's privacy.

It's more like you had previously made copies of your photos available for sale to strangers, and someone decides to distribute them for free. That is, we are no longer talking about secrecy or privacy (since you are already selling copies to the general public), but commerce and making a living.

The argument is not about privacy but whether digital goods can be considered property. Whether your pictures are for sale or not is irrelevant here. You may restrict access to friends, family or any group. If they're for sale , you restrict access to folks who pay. Any unauthorized taking is stealing.

Can I insist that the security state may not retain any data on me if they do not have a warrant? What if they collect, retain or even share this data without any legal process?

I have to agree here. The "post-scarcity" meme is fog-screen blather as well. What makes books scarce and therefore valuable isn't the paper and cover and binding, it's the time invested in researching and writing one.

Maybe a better way of looking at these is a private, grassroots library in a country that has no public library system to speak of (if you've ever tried to use a library anywhere in eastern Europe you know what I mean). Here in New York anybody can use one of the biggest free research libraries in the world and free interlibrary loans for nearly everything that's not in it.

Though I do think books that are out of print and not offered for sale as ebooks should fall out of copyright. And I'm very strongly in favor of putting all academic journals free on line. There's something to be said for the sharing culture being propagated by pirates. I recently discovered to my surprise that Armenia is quite progressive putting a lot of its scientific literature output free on line. Saved me having to interlibrary an obscure book all the way from Germany.

A few years ago, I predicted massive efforts to shut down file sharing, in addition to websites which provide access to diverse intellectual works. So, I dedicated much time to amassing a collection of works relating to history, art history, philosophy, etc., and other cultural content from many cultures and nations, which indeed, now I found essentially impossible to access online. (In Canada, it is legal to download copyrighted works, but not to share them.) A million dead ends, but no content at the end of most of them, with a variety of digital attacks waiting in many corners.

The pirates are losing. Is this a good thing?

Open source initiatives might help to make up for the situation ...

You're clearly doing it wrong.

Amazon and Ebay carry used books ( of course not the latest release, you have to wait a little ) , often the price is quite good.. For works in the public domain, you can use Google books. The books I find quite expensive are textbooks; If I am motivated enough to learn something, I will spend the money.

We are a nation of laws; if we start taking stuff without compensation, it all breaks down. Do books now cost more than they used to and does Amazon have too much monopoly power ? I don't know enough about it to say.

I worked in a used textbook store for a year. You used to be able to get all sorts of titles in highly technical works for $10-20 where the new editions are in the $200-500 range, and novels for a pittance. Now, resellers lock up most of that stock and inflate the prices.

But yes, the points you raise on the positive side crossed my mind and I elected not to mention them.

I think Amazon has some monopoly power, but I'm not sure whether it should be called "too much". It has indeed allowed for a very convenient way to locate a great number of titles. But they have captured all the gains of the technology and more.

The pirates are losing? Not as long as Library Genesis remains online.

The price of Academic texts is far too high, you can read them for free on Sci-Hub

The price of academic texts is part and parcel of the graft and corruption of higher education.

Piratebay and other such file sharing sites are just the modern libraries. I don't understand how many people can consider libraries as a good thing while condemning piracy which is basically the same thing but in the digital world. The fact that you only borrow stuff from libraries whereas you copy things from these "online libraries" is only a technical detail resulting from the fact that in the digital world there is no difference between the two.

There are many options, but I think they divide on one simple question: are you respecting the author's intention?

Buying a commercial work, or downloading a free work both honor the authors.

Downloading a bootleg from Russia insults the author and gets you all the spyware you deserve. (After all, the Russian hackers are playing by your rules.)

In many countries libraries are not required to respect authors intention. In most countries with public libraries, the authors do get some compensation from the library but it's much less than they would get from purchased books. Also, libraries don't need authors permissions to make their books available. It seems to me that the only differences between public libraries and pirate content sites in the internet are 1) libraries usually pay something to the authors (but do not do it on artists' terms, but rather on their own) and 2) libraries are sanctioned by the law while pirate sites are not.

Difference 1) would be cured by curing difference number 2). There is nothing stopping us (except the law that should be changed first) from starting a national electronic library system that works similarly to the Russian pirate sites (perhaps without the malware) but pays something to the artists according to number of downloads.

I am going to say physical book lending is implictly not violation of copyright. It was a part and parcel of traditional book ownership. I know though that publishers have tried to move from an ownership model to a licensing one.

For my simple mind libraries are for loaning physical books, and licensed non-ownership of ebooks is a new, different and complicated world.

It is a mess when city libraries negotiate to lend ebooks. Better as you say that a national system be established.

I was thinking of that paying the artists based on downloads idea. But you'd need a pretty rock solid identification system to prevent abuse where they might fakely download the book a million times. You'd probably get authors making drives to get fans to download their books regardless of whether there was an intent to read them. I like the idea, but the potential for corrupted use is huge, and these and related issues would have to be ironed out for it to work.

Of course, most of the digitized content is "free" only in the sense that Facebook and Google and the rest are "free": if Facebook and Google and the rest are "free", why is it that they generate enormous amounts of revenues and profits. They aren't "free", not if manipulation is considered a cost of access. Digitization hasn't made content "free", it's just shifted the revenues and profits from content producers to content distributors.

While their catalog is impressive, it's still nothing compared to what you can get through interlibrary loans. A lot of niche books haven't even been digitized. I was looking around for some commentaries on the Iliad and couldn't find anything in digital form.

Burgess "Homer" is good and available as ebook, but not exactly an Iliad commentary. Lots of detailed Iliad commentary previewed on Google books, eg the Kirk et al series, which can be peculiar on some points but has a lot of valuable material in it.

Re: "All knowledge should be free."
Why? ( should it be free?)
And should the people who create the knowledge also do it for free? If they don't want to, should they be forced to? Werner Herzog should be forced to make documentaries for free too?
What about fiction? It's not exactly knowledge? Should that be free?

Personally, when I write an academic paper, I want it to be free, But I want credit for it. When I write a commercial book, I want the money. If you think it should be free, write it yourself. As for copyright, I'm quite content with 35 years.

One of the points of this paper is that online services (like Amazon, Google Books, and many others) could easily take over most library's primary function as a place to find books, if legal issues were resolved. So what's likely to be the new primary function of all these buildings and the educational institutions that run them?

One possibility might be providing a safe(ish) local place for people to gather to study when taking online courses, either alone or together, formally or informally. This is after all how most undergrads use library buildings. Librarians already provide generalist assistance to students of all varieties - they could expand that role to help people select courses, organize groups, and so on, in a less formal way than colleges.

I did a stint in helping libraries to access existing funding for certain types of programs (they could hire a tech savvy youth to teach local people about various computer and internet skills). And I was somewhat surprised to find the huge extent to which libraries serve as a highly locally responsive locus of learning which provides a degree of guided learning for things which are deemed of important at the local level.

On most college campuses, the main use of libraries is study space and meeting space. They get heavy traffic, there is lots of study space, and it all gets used at peak times. The bookshelves are still there, but it's extremely rare to see them used. They add prestige to the building, like background books in an office that no one reads, but that's about it.

I once asked my upper level (college junior) class how many of them had ever taken a book out of the college library, and only a couple ever had.

I did a stint in helping libraries to access existing funding for certain types of programs (they could hire a tech savvy youth to teach local people about various computer and internet skills). And I was somewhat surprised to find the huge extent to which libraries serve as a highly locally responsive locus of learning which provides a degree of guided learning for things which are deemed of important at the
monoray vinç



Comments for this post are closed