You Can’t Stop Pirate Libraries
Shadow libraries exist in the space where intellectual property rights collide with the free-flowing exchange of knowledge and ideas. In some cases, these repositories of pirated books and journal articles serve as a blow against censorship, allowing those under repressive regimes to access otherwise verboten works. At other times, shadow libraries—a.k.a pirate libraries—function as a peer-to-peer lending economy, providing e-books and PDFs of research papers to people who can’t or won’t pay for access, as well as to people who might otherwise be paying customers.
Are the proprietors of these pirate libraries freedom fighters? Digital Robin Hoods? Criminals? That depends on your perspective, and it may also differ depending on the platform in question. But one thing is certain: These platforms are nearly impossible to eradicate. Even a greatly enhanced crackdown on them would be little more than a waste of time and resources.
Some of the biggest digital-age shadow libraries—including Library Genesis (or Libgen) and Aleph—have roots in Russia, where a culture of illicit book sharing arose under communism. “Russian academic and research institutions…had to somehow deal with the frustrating lack of access to up-to-date and affordable western works to be used in education and research,” the legal researcher Balázs Bodó wrote in the 2015 paper “Libraries in the Post-Scarcity Era.” “This may explain why the first batch of shadow libraries started in a number of academic/research institutions such as the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics…at Moscow State University.”
“As PCs and internet access slowly penetrated Russian society, an extremely lively digital librarianship movement emerged, mostly fuelled by enthusiastic readers, book fans and often authors, who spared no effort to make their favorite books available on FIDOnet, a popular BBS [bulletin board system] in Russia,” Bodó’s paper explained. As a result, a “bottom-up, decentralized, often anarchic digital library movement” emerged.
These libraries have found large audiences among academics in America and around the world, thanks to the high cost of accessing scholarly journal articles.
“Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research,” wrote Alexandra Elbakyan—the Russia-based founder of the massive shadow library Sci-Hub—in a 2015 letter to the judge presiding over the academic publisher Elsevier’s suit against Sci-Hub. Elbakyan pointed out that in days of yore, students and researchers would share access to papers via forum requests and emails, a system which Sci-Hub simply streamlines. She also noted that Elsevier makes money off the work of researchers who do not get paid for their work.
Such economic imperatives are just one part of the Sci-Hub ethos. “Any law against knowledge is fundamentally unjust,” Elbakyan tweeted in December 2021.
“There seems to be a widely shared…consensus in the academic sector about the moral acceptability of such radical open access practices,” wrote Bodó, Dániel Antal, and Zoltán Puha in a 2020 paper published by PLOS One. “Willful copyright infringement in the research and education secto
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