A really great and important editorial by Christopher Kelty, which I recommend reading in full at Al Jazeera. The article was prompted by the closing of library.nu, a site for the sharing of scholarly material which was vital for learners the world over.
Excerpted from Christopher Kelty:
“The winter of 2012 has seen a series of assaults on file-sharing sites in the wake of the failed SOPA and PIPA legislation. Mega-upload.com (the brainchild of eccentric master pirate Kim Dotcom – he legally changed his name in 2005) was seized by the US Department of Justice; torrent site btjunkie.com voluntarily closed down for fear of litigation.
In the last few days before they closed for good, library.nu winked in and out of existence, finally (and ironically), displayed a page saying “this domain has been revoked by .nu domain” (the island nation of Niue). It prominently displays a link to a book (on Amazon!) called Blue Latitudes, about the voyage of Captain Cook. A story about that other kind of pirate branches off here.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? One thing it means is that these barbarians – these pirates who are also scholars – are angry. We scholars have long been singing the praises of education, learning, mutual aid and the virtues of getting a good degree. We scholars have been telling the world of desperate learners to do just what they are doing, if not in so many terms.
So there are a lot of angry young middle-class learners in the world this month. Some are existentially angry about the injustice of this system, some are pragmatically angry they must now spend $100 – if they even have that much – on a textbook instead of on themselves or their friends.
All of them are angry that what looked to everyone like the new horizon of learning – and the promise of the vaunted new digital economy – has just disappeared behind the dark eclipse of a Munich judge’s cease and desist order.
Writers and scholars in Europe and the US are complicit in the shutdown. The publishing companies are protecting themselves and their profits, but they do so with the assent, if not the active support, of those who still depend on them. They are protecting us – we scholars – or so they say. These barbarians – these desperate learners – are stealing our property and should be made to pay for it.
In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies’ patents and profits.
The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is – legally speaking – nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever – and also illegal – local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.
Why doesn’t the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy – and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.
Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route – making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.
But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off – especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot – or will not – deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.
Instead, they print a handful of copies – less than 100, often – and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.
To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher’s black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.
What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?”