Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Burning the Library of Alexandria, again

The website formerly known as http://library.nu used to provide free downloads of PDFs of published academic books, often in violation of copyright. A few days ago, a consortium of publishers aggressively closed down the site and is seeking to bankrupt the people who ran it, and possibly send them to jail.
At the request of 17 publishing companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, including HarperCollins, Oxford University Press and Macmillan, a Munich judge on Monday granted injunctions against illegal posting or sharing of online book files by two websites. Library.nu is alleged to have posted links to hundreds of thousands of illegal PDF copies of books since December 2010, Ed McCoyd, an attorney for the Association of American Publishers, told The Huffington Post. The majority of these uploads allegedly went through the website iFile.it, he said.
The coordinated legal action came after seven months of private investigation and was led by a German publishing association, Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, and the International Publishers Association.

The Munich court served Library.nu and iFile.it 17 separate injunctions, representing 10 book titles from each of the publishers. One of the injunctions, which The Huffington Post viewed in a translation from the original German, states that every Web link -- either on iFile.it or Library.nu -- leading to an illegal online copy of one of the named books would result in a fine of 250,000 euros or as much as six months in jail.
-- from the Huffington Post, which gives more detail. See also The Verge, Indie Bookspot, etc.
The maxium fine would thus be 17 publishers x 10 books x $250,000 = $42,500,000. 

Instead of going after the library.nu guys, the publishers' coalition should have hired them, and monetized the site as a subscription service for e-books, like iTunes for music.  Shortsighted publishers, locked into yesterday's world-view, a discipline-and-punish approach, and an eagerness for excessive profit.  Predictably enough, the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels is amongst the strongest supporters of the pernicious and controversial ACTA legislation that has been widely opposed in street demonstrations across Europe this year (WikiPedia).

It is particularly hypocritical that in their press release, the publishers' conglomerate cites as the first reason for their action, "the interest of the authors who depend on fair compensation for their work."  Academic authors are routinely exploited by commercial publishers, who drive down royalties to single-figure percentages (normally only paid after the publishers have first recouped their own investment), and impose binding contracts on authors that deny them even the basic right to make a single photocopy of their own work, or to pass on their copyright to their legal heirs after death.  Many academic publishers pay no royalties at all.  If academic publishers wanted to offer authors "fair compensation for their work," they should look to their own practices first.

What has annoyed the publishers most, according to their own statement, is that library.nu earned an estimated ten million dollars in advertising revenue.  The period over which this money was made is not mentioned, and one has to query the method by which this estimate was made.  Nevertheless, if it is even partly true, it provides a stinging indictment of the publishers themselves, that they have not had the imagination or creativity to create a business model that could generate this kind of revenue and share it with their authors.

For example, a service like library.nu could be operated as an educational charity, with subscription revenue being shared between authors and charitable educational purposes like research and writing fellowships.  The platform could be used to advertise hard-copy copies of the PDFs, at prices competing with technologies such as the Expresso Book Machine (1 cent per page).  It is a long-established research finding that the distribution of electronic texts frequently boosts the sales of hard copy editions, especially if the advertising is done right (e.g., here, here, and Michael Hart's 1997 report "Electronic Monographs are Great Advertising").

As one commentator has noted, the library.nu archive, estimated at about 400,000 books, still exists.  You can't put the genie back in the bottle.  The whereabouts of the archive is not easily discovered (I don't know it), but it may be in Russia somewhere.  Suing it's creators will not solve the problem in the longer run.

We need to learn two lessons from this:
  1. Anyone systematically archiving in-copyright publications needs to watch out!
  2. In the modern, networked world, the true price of a publication is the value to a person of a clean conscience. 
    In principle, all books, films and music are and will be available for free download, for anyone willing to break the law of copyright.  But many people do not wish to live like that, and would willingly pay a reasonable price in order to have a clean conscience.  THAT is the future market value of an electronic cultural asset, not a figure calculated on the basis of production costs, shareholder returns, or authors' royalties.  
So, what is the price of a clean conscience?  It's hard to say, but on a per-book basis, I would say it is quite low.  It seems to me that Netflix has it about right: $7.99 per month in the USA, £5.99 per month in the UK, for unlimited online streamed film watching.  Lovefilm.com in the UK is offering unlimited streamed films at £4.99 per month.  
There are two interesting things about Netflix and Lovefilm's business model.  First, the low prices.  Second, the subscription model.  The subscription gives the company a steady, predictable income from month to month, which is a major gain.  A more-or-less captive group of customers, most of whom will not frequently change their subscriptions.
It has been rumoured for quite a while that Amazon is thinking about a subscription service for downloadable books, and with their Kindle service they certainly have the infrastructure for this.  The kno.com service for academic course books does something along these lines: e-textbooks for about 50% of the hard-copy prices, but with content enrichment (online features for note-taking, etc.).  It's not subscription - nobody is there yet - but it's close.