Preliminary Thoughts on the Way to the Free Library Congress

By Dennis Tenen. Edited by Rosemary Grennan, MayDay Rooms (London, UK). To appear in Schloss—Post.

Article titles obscuring citation network topography. Figure 1: Article titles obscuring citation network topography. Image by the author.

I am on my way to the Free Library Congress at Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart. The event is not really called the free library congress, but that is what I imagine it to be. It will be a meeting about the growing conflict between those who assert their intellectual property rights and those who assert their right to access information freely.

Working at a North American university, it is easy to forget that most people in the United States and abroad, lack affordable access to published information—books, medical research, science, and law. Outside of a university campus, reading a single academic article may cost upwards of several hundred dollars. The pricing structure precludes any meaningful idea of independent research.

Imagine yourself a physician or a young scientist somewhere in the global south, or in Eastern Europe, or anywhere really without a good library and without the means to pay exorbitant subscription prices demanded by the distributors. How will you keep current in your field? How are you to do right by your patients in following the latest treatment protocols? What about citizen science or simply due diligence on the part of patients, litigants, or primary school students in search for reputable sources? Wherever library budgets do not soar into the millions, research involves building archives that exist outside of the intellectual property regime. It involves the organizational effort required to collect, sort, and share information widely.

A number of prominent sites and communities emerged in the past decade in an attempt to address the global imbalance of access to information. Among them, Sci-Hub.1 Founded by Alexandra Elbakyan, a young neuroscientist from Kazakhstan, the site makes close to 50 million scientific articles available for download. Elbakyan describes the mission of her library as “removing all barriers that impede the widest possible distribution of knowledge in human society.” Compare this with Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”2 The two visions are not so different. Sci Hub violates intellectual property law in many jurisdictions, including the United States. Elsevier, one of the world’s largest scientific publishers, has filed a complaint against Sci Hub in New York Southern District Court.3 Of course Google also continually finds itself at odds with intellectual property holders. The very logic of collecting and organizing human knowledge is, fundamentally, a public works project at odds with the idea of private intellectual property.

Addressing the judge directly in her defense, Elbakyan appeals to universal ethical principles, like those enshrined in Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that: “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”4,5 Her language—our language—evokes also the “unquiet” history of the public library.6 I call this small, scrappy group of artists, academics, librarians, and technologists “free” to evoke the history of “free and public” libraries and to appeal also to the intellectual legacy of the free software movement: as Richard Stallman famously put it “free as in free speech not as in free beer.”7

The word “piracy” is also often used to describe the online free library world. For some it carries an unwelcome connotation. In most cases, the maintenance of large online archives is a drain on resources, not profiteering. It resembles much more the work of a librarian than that of a corsair. Nevertheless, many in the community actually embrace a few of the political implications that come with the idea of piracy. Piracy, in that sense, appeals to ideas and strategies similar to those of the occupy movement. When public resources are unjustly appropriated and when such systematic appropriation is subsequently defended through the use of law and force, the only available response is counter occupation.

The agenda notes introducing the event calls for a “solidarity platform” in support of free online public libraries like Sci Hub and Library Genesis, which increasingly find themselves in legal peril. I do not yet know what the organizers have in mind, but my own thoughts in preparation for the day’s activities evolve around the following few premises:

  1. The case for universal and free access to knowledge is stronger when it is made on ethical, technological, and tactical grounds, not just legal.

    The cost of sharing and reproduction in the digital world are too low to sustain practices and institutions built on the assumptions of print. The attempt to re-introduce “stickiness” to electronic documents artificially through digital rights management technology and associated legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are doomed to fail. Information does not (and cannot) “want” to be free,8 but it definitely has lost some of its purchase on the medium when words moved from vellum to magnetic charge and subsequently to solid storage medium that—I kid you not—works through mechanisms like quantum tunneling and electron avalanche injection.

  2. Any proposed action will require the close alignment of interests between authors, publishers, readers, and librarians.

    For our institutions to catch up to the changing material conditions and our (hopefully not so rapidly changing) sense of what’s right and wrong in the world, writers, readers, publishers, and archivists need to coordinate their action. We are a community. And I think we want more or less the same thing: to reach an audience, to find and share information, and to remain a vital intellectual force. The real battle for the hearts and minds of an informed public lies elsewhere. Massive forces of capital and centralization threaten the very existence of a public commons. To survive, we need to nurture a conversation across organizational boundaries.

    By my calculations, Library Genesis, one of the most influential free online book libraries sustains itself on a budget of several thousand dollars per year.9 The maintenance of Sci Hub requires a bit more to reach millions of readers.10 How do pirate libraries achieve so much with so little? The fact that these libraries do not pay exorbitant licence fees can only comprise a small part of the answer. The larger part includes their ability to rely on the support of the community, in what I have called elsewhere “peer preservation.” Why can’t readers and writers contribute to the development of infrastructures within their own institutions? Why are libraries so reliant on outside vendors, who take most of the profits out of our ecosystem?

    I am conflicted about leaving booksellers out of the equation. In response about my question about booksellers—do they help or hinder project of universal access?—Marcell Mars spoke about “a nostalgia for capitalism we used to know.” Tomislav Medak spoke in defense of small book publishers that produce beautiful objects. But the largest of booksellers are no longer strictly in the business of selling books. They build cloud infrastructures, they sell online services to the military, build autonomous drones, and much much more. The project of corporate growth just may be incompatible with the project to provide free and universal access to information.

  3. Libraries and publishing conclude a long chain of literary production. Whatever ails the free library must be also addressed at the source of authorship.

    Much of the world’s knowledge is locked behind paywalls. Such closed systems at the point of distribution reflect labor practices that also rely on closed and proprietary tools. Inequities of access mirror inequities of production. Techniques of writing are furthermore impoverished when writers are not free to modify their instruments. This means that as we support free libraries we must also convince our peers to write using software that can be freely modified, hacked, personalized, and extended. Documents written in that way have a better chance of ending up in open archives.

  4. We need more empirical evidence about the impact of media piracy.

    The political and economic response to piracy is often guided by fear and speculation. The work of researchers like Bodó Balázs is beginning to connect the business of selling books with the practices of reading them.11 Balázs makes a powerful argument, holding that the flourishing of shadow media markets indicates a failure in legitimate markets. Research suggests that piracy does not decrease, it increases sales, particularly in places which are not well-served by traditional publishers and distributors. A more complete, “thick description” of global media practice requires more research, both qualitative and quantitative.

  5. Multiplicity is key.

    As everyone arrives and the conversation begins in earnest, several participants remark on the notable absences around the table. North America, Eastern and Western Europe are overrepresented. I remind the group that we travel widely and in good company of artists, scholars, activists, and philosophers who would stand in support of what Antonia Majaca has called (after Walter Mignolo) “epistemic disobedience” and who need to be invited to this table.12 I speak up to say, along with Femke Snelting and Ted Byfield, that whatever is meant by the “universal” in access to knowledge must include a multiplicity of voices—not the universal but a tangled network of universalisms—international, planetary, intergalactic.

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