Library.nu: Modern era’s “Destruction of the Library of Alexandria”
The description above may come as a surprise to people who never sampled the wares of this fantastic resource. But the description, made by someone named Samir Huseyn on Twitter earlier today, is a fitting one. It was likely nowhere near as extensive as the library of Alexandria, but the last time I visited, it had thousands of pages and likely almost 100k objects in its catalog (according to the story below it was over 400k). But for the global patrons it served its most attractive quality was that it served them all up for free.
As of yesterday morning, the library.nu is no more. For the past 24 hours, dedicated users and community members scrambled to find out what had happened to it. Over the past few weeks, there have been dramatic changes to the login interface. At first, the login page would display nothing in the way of the works behind it; then a week or so ago the previous login page was replaced altogether: now library.nu pretended to be a “book review site,” displaying only the reviews members had left of the pirated works they previously dispensed. By Monday morning, the site was dead, its member rolls purged to prevent login from the direct link, the main page (ironically?) redirected to the Google Books frontpage, and the admin email producing an automated response:
I started watching the Twitter feed for “#library.nu” or its alias gigapedia.info for any word of what had happened. My first difficulty was finding anything about it in English. Amidst the Chinese, Korean, Continental and Eastern European languages, there was an occasional English tweet, but most of these were of the “WTF?” variety: no more info except a confirmation that something was going on. A post on a Spanish language blog confirmed that there was something amiss, though that was last week. Like many previous tweets - or the English ones I could read - what these actually illustrated was less that there was something wrong with the site and more that there was a deep, globally felt felt fear that something might happen to it. With Megaupload, BTjunkie, Pirate Bay, and other sites falling (even, as it were, in a SOPA-free world) recently, it was a reasonable concern.
An international alliance of publishers, including Cambridge University Press, Elsevier and Pearson Education Ltd, has served successful cease-and-desist orders on a piracy operation with an estimated turnover of £7m
The two platforms, sharehoster service www.ifile.it and link library www.library.nu, had together created an “internet library” making more than 400,000 e-books available as free illegal downloads. The operators generated an estimated turnover of €8m (£6.7m) through advertising, donations and sales of premium-level accounts, according to a report by German law firm Lausen which helped co-ordinate the alliance.
The other publishers involved also comprised Georg Thieme; HarperCollins; Hogrefe; Macmillan Publishers Ltd; Cengage Learning; John Wiley & Sons;the McGraw-Hill Companies; Pearson Education Inc; Oxford University Press; Springer; Taylor & Francis; C H Beck; and Walter De Gruyter. The alliance was also co-ordinated by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (Börsenverein) and the International Publishers Association (IPA),
If the list above seems like an unlikely bunch of transnational interests, that’s only because you never visited this library. It mostly trafficked in science and engineering textbooks (like many such sites) with an abundance of other monographs and trade titles, including enormous collections of journal articles and the latest epub and .mobi encoded editions of bestsellers. These were all carefully cataloged, with metadata linking them to subject headings, a description telling you what kind of text it was - whether it was merely a page image capture, one with OCR making it searchable, or a fully digital, publication quality pdf.
None of the files for these books, however, were archived on the site. As the news reports allege - and as several astute users identified early on - there seemed to be a direct linkage between the locker site ifile.it and library.nu. Many files were mirrored on both ifile.it and mediafire, but all of them were at least hosted on the .it site, perhaps signaling the reason the Italian Publishing Association was one of the first parties included in the crackdown (according, anyway, to my rough translation of the Italian news releases.) And though there wasn’t advertising on the library.nu site, major advertisers (some of whom seem to be party to the crackdown, others like Hotels.com are less directly involved) placed prominent ads on the pages of ifile.it. It’s actually quite sensible that they be connected, though I’m sure the actual legal and financial arrangement is more complicated: why go to the trouble of separating these if it could be easily demonstrated all the money was going to the same pot?
In any case, as with the Megaupload take down (and many others before that) the overall haul of the operators is hard to pin down - is £7m the turnover in one year? Throughout the life of the site? Does it include operating costs for hosting the 400,000 works? And, since this is a coalition of international publishers (or at least an international coalition of publishers) what percentage of their income does this £7m represent? I suspect the reason there is even mention of this amount is that this is the most important thing they can charge: simply giving away files is a tough thing to prosecute unless you can also prove there was some ill-gotten loot on the part of these IPR thieves. On the other hand, there are clearly other relationships here. I don’t know what ebooksclub.org is, but most of the obvious publication grade pdfs were, at least for a time, given a prefix indicating they were from that site. That site now defaults to library.nu, so maybe this is another layer of the operation.
I don’t want to get wrapped up in the INTERPOL intrigue - though I’m glad to have some more insight into how the operation functioned behind the scenes, from here on out the media story will be mostly focus on vilifying them for trying to fill an important but underserved niche. It isn’t merely, as the news stories so far have dutifully reported verbatim from the press release, that these are “freeloaders who make unjustified profits by depriving authors and publishers of their due reward.” And it is laughable to claim that this takedown will create, “a more transparent, honest and fair trade of digital content on the Internet.” As the music and movie industry have demonstrated, giving more power to rightsholders is usually the best way to create a more opaque, monopolistic and ultimately unfair trade in digital content.
None of this is to say that the International Publishers Association isn’t perfectly correct in calling this an illegal operation and its main owners “criminal” (though “highly criminal” seems a stretch); it was very likely illegal. Whether this is right or not is another question entirely. But this wasn’t just a “lucrative operation” (we don’t actually know how much it cost to operate it, and if the MPEE study of torrent sites is any guide, there were likely lots of costs involved since they were paying for actual hosting. UPDATE on this from Torrent Freak says they barely covered hosting costs) If it was in any way “organized copyright crime” it was organized in a very widespread way, with community members encouraged to submit their resources to the site to be cataloged and stored. More importantly, it obviously served a need, particularly in what the MPEE calls “Emerging Economies.” In looking at the global outcry on the Twitter feed, it is clear that many people in foreign markets relied upon this as an important resource.
For me, it is mostly an inconvenience. Instead of being able to easily find and quote a passage from a digital copy, I’ll have to take the time to find a print copy from my bookshelf or my library. Then I’ll have to type the whole damn thing like someone from the 1950s. Like most first world pirates, I’m as likely to buy a print copy once I download a digital one, if I haven’t already bought it). And since most of my interests are in the humanities and social sciences, I will rarely find a book I absolutely couldn’t afford to buy (though I’ve come across a few). But for many people in more dire straits, the loss of this library represents not just the loss of an intellectual resource, it may mean the difference between being able to afford their schooling or not.
On this front, even in the first world students have faced increasing textbook costs and as Audrey Watters points out, etextbooks have been a very poor replacement precisely because they actually exacerbate the cost. Not only are they no less expensive, but they can’t be shared, or sold, or bought used. Add to that that they have less functionality than a regular textbook (for the most part you can’t annotate them well and no one supplier has all of them: instead of going to one bookstore for all classes, they have to make deals with different vendors with different interfaces) and it makes it so that even the people who could afford to prefer an e-text over a real one would be more likely to look for it elsewhere.
The most exciting venture on this front in the legit, publisher owned e-textbook world is at Indiana University. It is a fine project in its own way - they’ve developed an HTML5 hosting platform that allows for lots of cool highlighting and social sharing options - but to listen to the IT head who had to negotiate the deal it had a lot more to do with lawyers than educators. For one thing, they had to join with several other schools to make it possible and negotiate as a group. All of the other schools were also large universities and the lawyers trying to make arrangements with just five publishers racked up a hefty bill. With all this heft, the only way they were able to negotiate a slightly reduced price for the content they were accessing was by forcing every student to buy the book - no used books, no shared books, no borrowed books: the cost of the e-textbook is included as a course fee charged to every student in the course. And they are allowed access to it through a University portal for as long as they are in college, then they no longer have access to the text.
All of this for saving an “average” of $25/textbooks, meaning if you happen to be one of the 5300 students in the program who takes all the classes in the program, then you will average that savings; if you’re only taking one of them, you might be saving a great deal less. It’s a good plan for students like Obama’s health plan will be for the uninsured: you’re forced into a plan that prioritizes corporate largess over its human priorities, but at least you get served. As the New York Times put it, it is a program which “Focuses on Bulk Savings, not iBooks.” Or, in the words of the IT head, Osborne
The model is agreeable to publishers and authors because they are guaranteed income that would otherwise be lost if students bought used textbooks. “We thought, ‘What if we made a model that gives money to the publisher and the author every year, provided it’s low enough for students to afford?’ ” Mr. Osborne said on Thursday.
I’m not faulting Osborne for beginning from what would be good for publishers: though his primary mission is to his students, he realizes that the only way he can even begin to imagine serving them, is if he starts by considering what would be good for the rightsholders that effectively make all the rules in this environment. Only by beginning from what will make them happy can he hope to serve his educational mission.
So far, we’re still in the relatively developed world. What led me to library.nu yesterday was discussions I had with a few people about the new open education courses at MIT, through their platform MITx. It is basically an extension campus on the web, only you may or may not be able to turn it into a credential. They don’t seem to be aiming as high as the Stanford AI MOOC that led to around 500,000 students starting the course at some point (only 30,000 or so finished.) But it is still billed as a good, economical way to get the information. More importantly, in the higher ed-tech-disruption circles, it is seen as more evidence that online is the wave of the future.
But scroll through the course and you find that the textbook is written by the professor - but owned by Elsevier. There are excerpts from the text on the website, but if you want the whole book, you have to buy it from Amazon or the publisher. So students might be able to take a free class, which may or may not get them any closer to a college degree, but if they really want to understand the material, they have to buy an $85 textbook. I suppose it is a small price to pay for a college class, but a cynic could point out (not me, of course) that it’s also a fantastic way to sell more books.
Again, I don’t fault the professor or the institution for trying to work this out in an above board, satisfactory fashion. Elsevier has powerful propagandists and likely much more powerful lawyers: they consistently preach a doctrine justifying their 35% profit margin by speaking of the incredible value they add to the works they publish - and if you ever stop believing, they remind you how much you’d need to pay to absolve your wayward soul. Even if you wanted to argue - you couldn’t. In any case, this is a very special arrangement that has to be made for this model to work. If the only classes schools can offer online are those where the professor has written the main text, it might be a slim set of offerings indeed: hardly the basis for a new model of education. And, again, central to it is the problem of the textbook.
The outside option here is that schools start using open educational resources, and there is a large movement around this as well - both schools trying to develop them and educators developing texts to use. If this was a more common practice, it might begin to eat away at the smug satisfaction textbook publishers must feel when they walk away from delivering a deal that so cravenly favors them over students. Preventing a shred of (their own) humility is the main goal of these publishers, which is why library.nu was so important to eliminate.
Once we slip the heavily fortified borders of the so called First World, the existence of library.nu is easily explained by the same situation that the Media Piracy in Emerging Economies report does for movies and music “piracy.”
Multinational pricing in emerging economies, [in contrast with domestic], signals two rather different goals: (1) to protect the pricing structure in the high-income countries that generate most of their profits and (2) to maintain dominant positions in developing markets as local incomes slowly rise. Such strategies are profit maximizing across a global market rather than a domestic one, and this difference has precluded real price competition in middle- and low-income countries. Outside some very narrow contexts, multinationals have not challenged the high-price/small-market dynamic common to emerging markets. They haven’t had to.
In other words, multinational companies have to protect their price gauging at home by making sure there aren’t pirated works available in the global, digital marketplace: if you are a regular old student, you might just avoid the hassle altogether and get a digital copy. The more widespread this practice became, the more acceptable, the less money they would be able to force from each student, at least on average. So they have to kill a service when it grows, not because it threatens their international market per se, but because it threatens the one at home.
Likewise, this means they have to be careful about even the price of legal textbooks in markets of middle- and low-income students (at home and abroad) (especially in technical fields where the cultural discount doesn’t eat into its global value, i.e. the English version could suffice worldwide). Even if the textbook was just marginally cheaper across a border or two, core students might be tempted to have one shipped - or an enterprising businessperson could start some sort of portal where the cheapest textbooks in the world are shipped everywhere else.
Maybe something like this already exists, but the price of US (and European) textbooks is targeted at their core market in roughly the same way are the goods of the movie and music industries that are the main subjects of the MPEE. This means that, for people who live in a market like South Africa, political, economic, and racial restrictions and divisions make (or have made) affordable textbooks hard to come by. As the report notes, in South Africa,
Textbook piracy remained ubiquitous and, according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), was responsible for larger total losses than either film or music piracy throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
mind you, this was before digitization. I suppose if students there want affordable, legal, knockoff textbooks, they’ll have to get Bono to beg for them like he did for AIDS generics. Or they could just head over to library.nu. Or could have.
I’m not defending criminal behavior, but as I’ve said before, economic realities mitigate against a clear definition of just what is criminal in this context. Whatever the juridical shortcomings of the digital library they made possible, it was the easiest way for anyone to get digital content from these publishers, even if they wanted to pay top dollar. And a quick glance at the nationalities or at least linguistic diversity of its mourners on Twitter should exhibit how wide a potential public it could serve. This was a working model of the library of the future; a functional collection that made education and exploration possible in unheard of fashion, but still needed vast improvement (and, of course, a legal license.)
In some ways, its (possibly) ironic redirect to Google Books is a sly nod to its brethren. Where Google Books - and its settlement with publishers - fails, it picks up the slack. Hate searching for passages in a book and only being treated to snippets because a publisher demanded it: search in Google Books, then stroll over to the library.nu and actually be albe to read a couple of pages around it - like all of them.
In enormous servers, in buildings around the world, are all the books. Archive.org has them; Google has them; Hathi has them; and those they don’t have they’re adding every day. But instead of being able to magically call them up on your device using the contemporary technology in all its glory, like a chump you still have to putter around trying to find where a digital version can be legally bought in a format you can load onto your e-reader with a set of rights even remotely resembling those you would get for roughly the same price in a physical book, i.e. you can mark it, save it, sell it, lend it, give it away to Goodwill or send it to poor kids in South Africa. In other words, most of the time you have to sit back and bide your time until the pirates really sink this ship and make it possible for literature, libraries, scholarship, and reading to move into the 21st century for the bulk of the world’s population. Today, for all its faults, we lost one important trailblazer for that future. As one Tweet put it:
If Electronic libraries is the future of books, one sole site truly made this claim feel true. Library.nu, you shall be deeply missed.— aaki (@aaki) February 16, 2012
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