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.