Library Closure of Type .nu
Apparently now is a time of reckoning for the ‘one click’ hosting services which have come to dominate filesharing since around 2005. While attention has focussed on supersized Megaupload operator Kim Dotcom and his bizarre universe, other more discrete circuits have also been closed. Library.nu, an enormous collection ranging from bestsellers to truly arcane academic titles in all formats, yesterday announced its own epitaph .
Books have always been available online; when I first got access to Usenet in 1992, some of the first things I came across were Bruce Sterling’s ‘The Hacker Crackdown’ and Hakim Bey’s ‘Temprary Autonomus Zone’, cult titles amongst early internet users. Books were inputed laboriously via keyboard and posted as .txt, first on usenet, then the web and ftp. Scanners were still in short supply at that point, and OCR software underdeveloped, but as they dispersed and improved the number of works mushroomed. But the delivery method was inconvenient, requiring the reader to remain at their screen or print to dead tree. Other larger collections were assembled, such as textz.com, which eventually ended up in legal wrangles with rightsholders.
With the growth of file-sharing into a mass phenomenon in the middle of the last decade, dedicated book sites appeared, sometimes linked explicitly to complaints about access and cost. This was the case with the Danish vidensdeling.nu founded in August 2005 to provide a platform for students to share course books. Publishers immediately shut the site down. A similar site in the US, Textbook Torrents launched in 2007, was closed in the summer of 2008 after an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education led to threats of legal action against its creator.
Ebook Readers, Meet Direct Downloads
Prior to the release of mass market book readers, the mainstream publishing industry felt relatively unaffected, but they understood that as the devices made their way into users’ hands they would find themselves losing control in a replay of the music and film sectors. As torrent sites came under sustained pressure, and their users were targetted with legal action, many closed or became private clubs. Direct downloads filled the gap left in their wake: requiring no software installation they were simple to use, and due to their FTP structure their users were not connected to a network transparent to monitoring and potential identification. Whilst these sites limited the quantity non-paying users could access, the small size of books vis a vis movies made such sites playgrounds for book fans. As Amazon ramped up marketing and volume on the Kindle, and then tablets like the iPad took off in popularity, the bumpiness in the user experience of digital text diminshed, and the protective buffer around the publishers receded.
With this in mind the German Boersenverein developed a strategy in winter 2008 which was subsequently circulated to Publishers’ organisations internationally the following spring. Here they outlined an approach which combined political lobbying with stigmatization of unauthorised copying of books. Parallel to this they proposed to increase the availability of authorised ebooks, and to instigate a legal campaign against “systematically ‘suitable’ services”, one-clicks hosts in particular. In this manner the demand then flowing towards pirate sites could be intercepted and rerouted by an industry doing a better job at supply.
To this end a relationship was established with the Lausen legal practice in Munich. The first target was Rapidshare: in 2009 they campaigned to have the site blocked by German ISPs. Unsuccessful on this score, a group of national and international publishers initiated legal proceedings, represented by Lausen. In February 2010 an injunction was obtained from a court in Hamburg ordering the removal of 148 works from Rapidshare (many of them also text books) and further monitoring to ensure that the works did not reappear. As some titles continued to be available, the plaintiffs brought rapidshare back to court, where the latter were fined 150,000 euros in December of the same year for failure to comply with the terms of the injunction, and not having introduced adequate filtering mechanisms.
Curtains for Library.nu
In 2011 Lausen and the publishers turned their attention to library.nu, a site providing a central register of books available for download from a series of direct download sites and active since 2006. An article published in the Sunday Times in mid-December last reported that the operators of the site had been traced to Galway, Ireland, and that one of the addresses provided to the domain registrar was the headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank (the administrator obviously has some sense of humour as Anglo was the biggest crap-out of the property bubbble collapse).
Between Christmas and New Year the publishers successfully applied for a series of court orders at the Landesgericht in Munich. Apparently the orders to cease and desist were passed then to Ireland in the last week. The plaintiffs are claiming that library.nu was a massive commercial piracy operation making eight million pounds a year, an improbable figure given that virtually all of their income derived from advertising and donations. According to an article in torrentfreak premium membership was introduced for purchase only in November last, which didn’t leave them with much time to make hay.
Whilst the library.nu domain has not been seized, the operators have decided themselves to take it offline. According to a press release from the American Association of Publishers, the operators will now be pursued:
One positive outcome from this complicated process is that the platform operators themselves are now being held responsible as perpetrators for the copyright infringements on their sites and will therefore not merely be liable for the illegal conduct of their users. All four copyright chambers at the LG of Munich I who dealt with this issue and who promptly issued the 17 interim injunctions were in agreement on this matter.
Although how this is being dealt with jurisdictionally remains unclear.
A Blip or the End?
The tiny size of contemporary epubs makes them incredibly easy to store and distribute. As is the case with much online enforcement activity this is more about the show than the substance, intended to scare other operators and send a message to errant users. It is true that as long as these sites are structured in a centralized manner they will have a limited half-life. One would expect the recent closures to lead to a renewed interest in distributed and even quasi-anonymised systems, such as i2p.
Centralisation constitutes a honey-pot for profit-focussed pirates: without it there is no audience whose attention can be sold to advertisers, nor a fixed infrastructure on which a toll can be charged for access or better performance. It is a great irony that what began as a campaign against p2p has now had the unforeseen consequence of creating a market for a client-server system of unauthorised media distribution, thereby offering significant incentives for a particular type of entrepreneur. This client-server architecture is the very negation of the potential of the net, returning users to the role of passive customers.
On a final note, the case of library.nu is significant because the demand for the works offered there demonstrates that filesharing is not just about pop music, porn and cams of action movies, but also those forms and sources of knowledge whose acquisition are ritually celebrated within ‘enlightenment’ culture. Many of those whose works were offered derive income not from royalties, but from related activities such as teaching and research. Such people were themselves an important component library.nu’ user base. Some have other means to access the same materials, others, especially those in countries with weaker education infrastructures and more emaciated library budgets, do not. Outside of formal education, the millions of online autodidacts may be denied access to material, seriously impinging on their lives and possibilities. When one considers the cost of text books and more especially scholarly articles, that is no hyperbole, and applies not only to the global south but the post-industrial north as well, awash in its dreams of knowledge economies and human capital.
But maybe such a concern is sheer melodrama, given the likelihood of the same works becoming freely available elsewhere. Time will tell.
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