There is an angry, disgruntled buzz in several universities across India as students discover that their rock of refuge during research has been shut down by the order of a court in Munich.
Library.nu, the website in question, functioned as a veritable Makkah of “illegal” online knowledge, where an eclectic collection of rare monographs, recent academic books and lengthy treatises could be downloaded for free. A coalition of 17 of the world's largest publishing houses put paid to this venture, describing it as “one of the largest pirate Web-based businesses in the world”.
The website was definitely engaging in “illegal” activities: making over 4,00,000 copyrighted books available online without permission and for no charge is undeniably against the law as it stands today. However, as the outpour of public anger about this decision indicates, there are deeper questions involved.
While Tom Allen, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Publishers, considers the injunction “a significant step in shutting down two major rogue websites stealing content from publishers and others”, and an indication of the need for additional tools to expedite such action, the ends achieved by the injunction remain suspect.
Library.nu, for innumerable users, was a source of otherwise inaccessible research material. The claim of publishing houses that this e-book piracy was leading to mammoth losses is, therefore, questionable. Shutting library.nu only makes a huge mass of research inaccessible to a global audience.
The Internet, since the time of Napster, has served as a marvellous platform to facilitate dissemination of information. Presuming that the aim of academia is to further scholarship and provide insights, such a platform would seem god-send. Instead, there is a call from a gargantuan international alliance of publishers to develop tools to prevent “piracy” while no moves are made to ensure that concerns of accessibility are addressed.
The concept of open access could apply just as well to any academic material. Once it is acknowledged that royalties are not the only ends of academic scholarship, the obvious plus point of an enhanced readership becomes important. Studies of open access journal entries indicate much higher readership and a greater likelihood of being cited.
Further, while there is no direct evidence showing a fall in sales of books when they are pirated online, several authors have found interest in and sales of their books being boosted because of the buzz created by pirated e-versions: Paulo Coelho being the most obvious example. This makes for an interesting middle-ground between open-access scholarship and its closed-access counterpart. Could publishers continue to sell books while turning a blind eye to free “pirated” versions of the same book being available online for people to avail of? Recent events show that this probably is the most plausible option available. In either case, given the nature of the Internet, the publisher coalition seems to be set on fighting a losing battle. The angry buzz in colleges is quickly being replaced with the name of a newly-discovered treasure trove of free knowledge.
(The author is pursuing a BA. LL.B. (Hons.) degree at Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad.)