The shutdown of library.nu

I came to know about the Lions Book soon after I had started to use GNU/Linux during the final years of my high-school. Although I had a PDF copy of it (along with another PDF of the source code), I wanted to have a physical copy of the book as well. I had to wait for quite a few years before that could happen, because the printed book wasn’t available in India. Finally, in late 2006, after getting paid for my first consultant job, I got a copy shipped from the United States to Kolkata.

The reason I was reminded of the incident is the recent news about the shutdown of library.nu, a popular ebook downloading portal. Before going into the details, I should state upfront that I do not endorse or support the way library.nu operated. I would certainly want to see publishers and authors and booksellers fairly compensated for their efforts. However, the basic problem here was (and still is), that many publishers simply did not and do not care about certain markets, and I’m sure, if library.nu’s access logs were to be analyzed, these markets would come out in overwhelming majority.

“We will not tolerate free-loaders who make unearned profits by depriving authors and publishers of their due compensation. This is an important step towards more transparent, honest, and fair trade of digital content on the Internet.”

This was a part of a statement from Jens Bammel of the International Publishers Association. What Mr Bammel (and many others) seem to conveniently ignore is the fact that sometimes publishers simply do not have their content in digital formats, or even if they do, the content is restricted to limited geographies, effectively depriving billions (the so-called “free-loaders”) of access to creativity, knowledge and information. When I was reading the Lions Book, mass-market ebook-readers did not exist. Now they do - and I feel incredibly frustrated when I recommend a book to my friends in India (many of whom own ebook-readers), only to find that a ebook version does not exist, or even if it does, it is not available to customers outside of a certain geographical region (usually the United States). A case in point would be Seymour Papert’s The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer - the book that pushed me to apply to grad-school at MIT. There’s no ebook edition of that book - at least not for the most popular ebook-reader brand that’s out there. For someone in India, this would mean paying the rupee-equivalent of the US dollar price of the book (which would be quite expensive - especially if you are a student) and then waiting for quite a bit of time before getting it. In such a situation, isn’t it natural for someone to just go to one of these ebook download portals, and then download a “pirated” copy instead of going through all the hassle? And it is not just India, in fact, the situation in India is a lot better than many other countries in the world. One of the most vivid memories of my trip to Birmingham, UK for GUADEC 2007 is the visual of the stacks of O’Reilly books that Dulmandakh Sukhbaatar, the GNOME developer from Mongolia had bought to carry back home. He didn’t get O’Reilly books in Mongolia, he said, and wanted to carry back as much as he could. (I should probably mention here that as far as my personal experience goes, O’Reilly is one of the publishers who do a much better job of reaching out to non US/Western markets - and I would also say that it goes on to prove that there is a market for legitimate copies of books outside of the Western hemisphere, and not everyone in the rest of the world is a “free-loader”.)

Of course - all this is nothing new. The story is largely similar with movies. It’s just that I feel more passionately about books, and I feel sad, that after what happened last week, a lot of people out there lost their only viable option for accessing a large chunk of human creativity and knowledge. Part (2) of article 27 of the UN Universal declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

while part (1) states:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Indeed, it is a sad situation when the two statements above are pitched against each other.

February 19, 2012