It’s 2023 already, and for us, at the Open Knowledge Foundation, it really means new times. Last year, soon after the incorporation of Renata Ávila as our CEO, we announced a joint strategy of our advocacy and communications arms called 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100).
Today, we are happy to announce the kick-off of this project.
We are meeting 100+ people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, academics, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators and community leaders from all over the world.
Our team wants to identify and debate issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to deliver in the best possible way what the community expects from us and from our Network, a pioneering organization that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.
Another objective is to include the perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalised communities, from dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside the world’s major financial powers.
How openness can speed up and strengthen the fights for the complex challenges of our times? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.
This release is not happening on any given day. Not coincidentally, today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz, an iconic political organizer and internet hacktivist whose struggle for open knowledge continues to inspire our generation of activists. Keeping this agenda active and refreshed is our humble posthumous tribute to him.
We are kicking off #OKF100 today with a conversation with Dr. Balázs Bodó, economist, and researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam.
Bodó is a recurrent voice in the intellectual property field and an expert in the legal discussions and social implications of access to knowledge, and consequently the barriers created to prevent it. Among several important articles and conferences in recent times, he contributed to the book Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education (edited by Joe Karaganis, MIT Press, 2018).
Before moving to the Netherlands, he was deeply involved in the development of the Hungarian internet culture. He was the project lead for Creative Commons Hungary and a member of the National Copyright Expert Group. In 2018 he received an ERC Starting Grant to study the legal, and political implications of blockchain based technologies, and started the Blockchain & Society Policy Research Lab. He has been invited by the European Commission to serve as an expert for various blockchain-related projects.
We spoke with Bodó at the end of November 2022, a few days after the arrest of the Z-Library creators in Argentina, and this was the topic from which we started to build a broader view around the recent threats to knowledge sharing on a global scale.
We hope you enjoy the read.
OKFN: What does the process of chasing and taking down Z-Library mean for the concept of open knowledge?
Balázs Bodó: When I read the news that these two Russian individuals have been detained, I thought, well, history has come to a full circle. I don’t know these people, how old they are, I assume they are in their thirties. But certainly, their parents or their grandparents may have been or could have easily been detained by the Soviet authorities for sharing books that they were not supposed to share. And now, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are again detained for sharing books. For a different reason, but it’s the same threat, ‘You’re gonna lose your freedom if you share knowledge’.
The freedom to access and share knowledge was one of the reasons why people were willing to risk their lives in the pre-1990s era in Central and Eastern Europe. People were risking going to jail, losing their jobs, their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives because of they wanted to know, and wanted to share knowledge through writing samizdat, printing, distributing samizdat editions of –among others– banned western books. And now the Western or liberal or democratic political system is jailing people for – on the surface – very similar acts. The history of copyright (the control of the flow of knowledge through the exclusive economic rights of authors) and the history of censorship (the control of the same flow due to political considerations) have been closely entwined from the very beginning, and apparently, it is sometimes hard to disentangle them even today. In Belarus, the law now permits the digital piracy of works from unfriendly countries, a move quite similar to old, Soviet-era authors’ rights rules.
Z-Library is certainly far from being a clear-cut case because it is a hybrid library that offered both scholarly and commercial works, both literary and academic literature. It’s easier to make a case for shadow libraries and book piracy when it is limited to publicly funded research, academic articles published in scholarly journals, or exorbitantly priced text-books. Piracy is way less defendable and a much more contentious issue when we talk about the piracy of widely available commercial works, such as books as the Harry Potter series. But there is an immense grey zone between these two extremes: in copyright but out-of-print works, books that are hard to buy legally, which do not have electronic versions, which cannot be borrowed from a library nearby, etc, etc.
I think it’s never nice to see a library burn down. And this is what a burning down of a library looks like in the digital space. It’s never nice to see books being made inaccessible for one reason or another. And this is what is happening. Books are highly symbolic objects and their disappearance, them being forced to be inaccessible, is never a good sign.
When talking about shadow libraries, the first thing that comes to mind is Sci-Hub or Alexandra Elbakyan. It is very curious that many of these initiatives and also some shadow libraries themselves started in Russia somehow. Do you think there’s a sort of historical link, more sensitivity to censorship or historical heritage around that?
Absolutely. I’ve written about that in my research. Yes, there is a very clear link between current digital shadow libraries and the Russian legal, economic, social, cultural, historic contexts. In Russia, there is a history of how to circulate knowledge under the conditions of oppression, and how to build shadow networks of knowledge when political oppression tries to curtail the accessibility of certain forms of information. When in the 1990’s political censorship ended, but the post-Soviet economies collapsed, these networks and practices could find a second life in the digital space. In that era of societal, economic turmoil and hardship, digitising books and building shadow libraries become a form of agency – cultural agency, economic agency, and institutional agency in the hands of a highly literate, economically deprived cultural elite.
Also, it certainly helps that Russia and many of the post-Soviet republics are at the peripheries of legal enforcement, so they are not fully incorporated into the Western cooperating enforcement regimes, which makes it easier for shadow libraries to survive. Apparently, these individuals were never detained in Russia, but somewhere in South America.
What is the exact crime that Z-Library is committing? What is the legal argument behind the shutdown?
I think there are at least four different discourses and languages through which this whole phenomenon is being discussed, and they are not communicating with each other at all. But they are used very strategically by most people, including myself, who participate in this debate.
One first language is the law, of course. ‘What does the law says about someone releasing an ebook without the authorization or license from the rights holder?’ The law is very clear on that: this is a copyright infringement. You cannot do that without the permission of the rights holder, and they were doing it without such permission, so there is not much debate or uncertainty about the legal status of Z-Library. There are some legal fights, for example, in India, regarding educational materials. Library Genesis and Sci-Hub are being litigated in India, and the question is whether the educational exceptions within the Indian law would cover such a practice. But yes, it’s certainly a copyright-infringing practice, everywhere in the West, and in almost all other jurisdictions as well. Rights holders certainly have a very good legal case there.
The second language in which piracy is usually discussed in is the economic discourse. What is the relationship between the grey markets and the legal markets? What kind of economic harm piracy causes? As an economist, my argument is that black markets arise when legal markets fail. They emerge when and where the legal markets do not deliver what customers want. There is extensive, but inconclusive research on the economic impact of digital piracy. Some works some creators do suffer losses due to piracy. For others it makes little difference. For some it may even have some beneficial effects.
With regards to books, we’ve measured the economic impact of the Library Genesis catalogue. We asked the following questions: ‘If I wanted to buy this book from the LibGen catalogue, could I buy this? Where? For how much? In what format? Is it available on the secondhand market? If I wanted to read this book online, would I be able to buy or rent this book as an e-book? Could I lend this book from a library?’ In 2015 what we found is that around 80% of the titles were available in print, but 20% were not. For four out of five books there customers could buy a copy if they wanted to. But very few of these titles were actually available digitally.
So there was a clear argument at that point, that these shadow libraries were serving a demand for books for which there was no legal supply. In the last decade, a lot has changed in the ebook marketplace, so it is quite possible that most of the Z-Library supply is somehow available online now. But the question is still there: is the legal online access evenly distributed? Only if we compare legal access alternatives to illegal downloads, only then we can say something empirically about the true economic impact of piracy.
But this type of economic or market discussion is tricky because it gives you hard numbers. It gives you very clear evidence of whether the price is good or bad, whether there are unserved customers, lost sales, etc. In my experience, rights holders are not always happy to have such numbers out in the public because it highlights all the things that they could do to avoid the piracy of their products: ‘Hey, you have to lower your price’, or, ‘Hey, you could make better deals with libraries around e-landing, because your customers are going elsewhere.’
But economic arguments don’t always sit well, because with regards to piracy there is a third discourse, and that is about control. If the economic arguments are favourable to the rights holders’ position, then they use the economic arguments. But if the economic arguments suggest that making more money is only possible if rights holders are willing to give up control of the circulation of works, or if the economic arguments show that there is no substitution effect, and thus no economic harm, then the debate tends to switch arguments about control. These arguments emphasize that no matter what, rights holders can do whatever with their works, including making bad decisions. Both the law, and good philosophical arguments support the idea that they should have (almost) exclusive and absolute control over the life and death of the works thy created, and so they are not bound by the economic wisdom of their decisions.
And there is a fourth line of argument, which focuses on the role of creative works in culture. These arguments are often abstract and symbolic, and focus on such value laden ideals such as access to knowledge, common cultural heritage, cultural participation, free circulation of ideas, and the public domain. These are often seen as utopia, naive or incorrigible humanist ways of discussing what books are and how they should live with us.
I think these arguments are as important as the legal, or economic ones. If you talk to, for example, librarians, they’re going to agree with this approach. But the world of books is not curtailed to libraries and librarians. This world also consists of a few gigantic publishing corporations and those are organized around profit margins, investors returns, and control, and for them these arguments are more important than the books-are-culture approach.
Today shadow libraries serve a role of an almost permanent repository of works that are out of the digital space in a way, a role that a National Library would have for physical books, let’s say. We’ve seen cases of initiatives by the open access movement in Europe, like in Sweden or Switzerland, where a model of subscription to journals is being tested as an alternative. Do you think that shadow libraries will keep on being there because they fill that gap, or do you think that once this gap is solved through some market alternative, then their role will be maybe redundant and a bit less useful?
I think cultural black markets play other important role beyond providing immediate access to a wide range of works, and that is that they can shape the development of the legal alternatives. What they say to rights holders is the following: ‘If you don’t adjust your business models, if you don’t improve your legal offering, then we will stay here threatening you’. This is what has happened in the digital music space. They managed to sue Napster, and then Kazaa, and so on, into oblivion but what ultimately put an end to music piracy was Spotify. But Spotify would’ve never happened without the credible threat of music piracy. If there was no music piracy, we would be still buying DRMs and MP3s from the Apple Music Store, because that was at the time the preferred business model for rights holders. Only the threat of piracy shifted the calculus, where they said, ‘Hey, an all-you-can-eat subscription service may not be our preferred way of making music accessible, but it’s still better than losing all our business to the pirates’.
I think this is also the role of shadow libraries. They managed to shut down Z-Library for now, but there are already gazillions of copies out there. They exist on IPFS, on bittorrent, on various private repositories, therefore they cannot fully get rid of this threat. The only way to suppress piracy is to actually serve the demand, which is now being served by the pirates, and offer comparable, equally favourable conditions. We’ve seen with all the subscription services that people are very happy to pay a monthly fee for having no-question-asked access to movies, music, series, whatever.
We have done a survey a couple of years ago where we asked people if would they be willing to pay some money on top of their internet subscription, for a file-sharing licence. We found that they were very happy to actually pay around 10 euros per month for not having to think twice about the legality of what they are downloading. What we’ve shown is that, if you have every internet subscriber paying 5 to 10 euros extra per month on their subscription to not be bothered by legality, then this would actually make many times more money for rights holders than what they’re making now. It seemed like a match made in heaven. People would be happy to pay. Rights holder would be better off. Win-win, right? But when we approached them, they said they were not really interested in that proposition because it would have meant that they had to give up control.
On the question of shadow libraries, well, they will never be legal, but they might be irrelevant if there are good legal alternatives. But there are no good legal alternatives…
But, this also reminds me to stress that we mustn’t talk about Z-Library in and by itself. They are just one puzzle piece in a much larger picture, with a number of other players. There’s the Internet Archive. In COVID times they set up what they called “the emergency lending library”, and they are now fighting in court to defend the legality of lending out digital copies of books they have a physical copy of. There is also a conflict between publishers and libraries about the terms and conditions of digital lending. There is also Amazon with their business and services, like text-book and e-book rentals. There are also all those regional and national funding agencies that buy access to electronic databases for local research and education institutions. This is the big picture that Z-Library is also part of.
What are the more immediate impacts of shutting down Z-Library? To what extent shadow libraries are an intrinsic part of the academic world today?
Well, people find their way. It’s not that difficult. If you are a user, you can go to Reddit and then find the alternatives. It’s not rocket science. The academic scholarly networks are aware of what’s happening. There are lots of substitutes for Z-Library. I don’t think that, in general, there’s a great loss, and that’s the whole point.
Paying a small fee for services that today are illegal is something that has been mentioned also in some corners of the discussions in the open movement, with people saying maybe open doesn’t always mean that it’s free, and maybe you can have like small subscriptions that would allow maybe a fair remuneration of authors, for example. Do you think that’s a direction a service like this would take, or should it stay in the rebellion activist space?
I’m pretty sure you know Alek Tarkovsky and Paul Keller, who run Open Future. They had an essay on the Paradox of Open and they are launching a series of essays in response to that. I’ve written one, and all these essays are asking what is open, how is open, and what is the use of usefulness of open? My argument is that the particular form of openness that was promoted by Benkler, Lessig, all these Creative Commons types in the US, was a very particular and misleading understanding of what open is and what open could be. They have been referring to the ideas of Elinor Ostrom about commons, and suggested that in the digital space we can organize resources as open commons. In that discourse this has meant that anyone can come and take whatever they need from the commons, because digital resources are infinitely copyable
This was a rather stark departure from the way the Ostromian commons are organised, because these are closed, not open. You cannot just go to a common fishery and start fishing, or go into the common forest and cut down a tree. You cannot go into a community and start to extract resources without permission. So they are more like clubs – if you’re part of the club, then you can extract, if you’re not part of the club, then you can take a walk but you cannot extract resources. My understanding is that this whole creative / open / digital commons movement uses the commons as a term, but what they meant was public domain, where you don’t need to ask permission for taking. You can just go in and take whatever you see. It’s okay because it’s digital, you take and it’s left and then it’s no problem, right?
My impression is that, for a number of reasons, digital knowledge or knowledge commons or digital commons are only inexhaustible in one narrow sense, and if you look beyond that, there are a number of really good ideas why access to these resources should be thought about. For example, freely accessible digital resources are not inexhaustible are actually reproducing existing power inequalities. We found this effect also in relation to shadow libraries. When looked at who uses shadow libraries the most, it’s highly developed countries. Why? Because though the knowledge resource is openly accessible to everyone, the other resources that would actually allow you to make use of this free resource are not evenly distributed. I can speak as a Hungarian. I know all my Hungarian academic colleagues, who are using shadow libraries. They are using it, but they also have to juggle one, two, often more jobs to make a living in academia because an assistant professor makes 700€ gross, and a full professor salary is 1400€ gross per month. With such salaries, they cannot make a living working only in academia. People who have to have other jobs cannot make the same use of the same pirate library as someone who can dedicate their full time and attention to teaching, and research. The more of these other elements are missing, the bigger these problems get in terms of the use of free resources.
We have a similar problem with Creative Commons licenced images. Creative Commons is great, it’s very nice if I, as a blogger, can use a Creative Common licenced image to illustrate my blogpost, but the true values of this resource is being captured by Google and Facebook and all the other players who use it to train their AI models.
So there are good reasons to put fences around open resources and let someone say under what conditions you have access to these -otherwise free- resources. I think fences make a lot of sense if they enable you to say: ‘Hey, Google, you cannot just come in and extract value from these resources’. They also help you answer another question about the production of common resources, because they can offer a way to consider the following challenge: ‘Okay, we pulled this resource together’, but then how do we actually make sure that whoever contributed to this resource has a chance to actually benefit from it one way or another? The fences can also make sure that those who worked on a resource can charge for it if they wish.
Well, you can say at this point that what I’m proposing is not that different from what the rights holders have been saying with regards to Z-Library. And this is indeed true, to a certain extent. But what the (close) commons enable are also more models than what came to dominate the copyright-based approaches.
Take, for example, K, an arthouse bittorrent tracker. They managed to build an extremely comprehensive archive of arthouse cinema. They also put up a fence. They don’t chargefor access, so making money is not their point. They put up a fence so they can make sure people don’t take content without contributing something to the community. They also take down content if the rights holders demand it. Many members of the community are from the film industry: directors, producers, creatives, as well as film distributors, people who are actually trying to make money by selling those films that are also available freely on the tracker. The reason they don’t see K as a threat is twofold. First, they know that it is not an open resource: there is some control over who can access that archive. Also, the tracker policy clearly states that they are going to remove content if the rights holder requests it, because they are not running the archive to hurt arthouse moviemakers.
So the fence is there to protect the resource. A fence can solve lots of problems, so openness is not always the best approach. In other cases, for example science, I think a resource could be radically open.
We’re glad you brought up the meaning of openness because that was one of the questions. But we wanted to dig deeper there. Access was maybe the main pillar of the movement 15 years ago, but now after the ontological turn in social sciences, and all discussions around intersectionality, it appears that there are many other layers to be considered. So what are we talking about when we talk about open today? Do you think access is still the point?
Of course, open access resources are just one infrastructure, which is good if it’s there. But we need a number of other infrastructures as well, and they need to be able to work together if we want to have an impact. One of the questions is what kind of other infrastructures or elements we can identify. If you are in the Open Knowledge Foundation, what kind of other players do you need to talk to in order to make sure that your work has as much impact as it could have and just doesn’t evaporate because some infrastructural elements are missing.
I give you an example. The academic knowledge market has been operating under a business model where publishers have been charging for access. Now the biggest firms in the industry are slowly moving towards another business model. And this means more than just supporting golden open access and charging article processing fees. These firms have also invested quite a lot in the infrastructural elements of knowledge production, like citation management, software, institutional archive, and science metrics. The new business model is based on collecting data at every step of knowledge production, from citation via publishing and archiving to distribution. They take all the information from academic knowledge production, package it into various metrics and sell these back to the universities. ‘This is how many papers have been published by your department, how many times they were cited, their impact, this is the score of your individual researcher, how good they are compared to all the others, their worth in the academic market’. What started with academic publishing is not turning into something akin to what credit rating agencies are doing. It’s the same business model. And, for that business model, if you’re in the business of metrics, of selling creditworthiness information to the market, you need circulation, the circulation of the knowledge that you are trying to measure and turn into a product. You cannot put up artificial, legal or technological barriers that limit the circulation of the knowledge that you want to measure and then repackage.
So I see that there is a shift from a business model which made money out of limiting circulation to business models which tries to profit from circulation. If that is indeed the case, then in this new model you have to let circulation take place, and the traditional barriers to such free circulation through DRM or subscriptions must go down.
This transformation of how knowledge production is organized in society brings forward the question of infrastructure. In order for publishers to create the new metrics-based products and services, they need to control the infrastructure of the workflow where the data is generated: the systems of archiving, publishing, citation management, and search. This then raises the question of sovereign technology infrastructures, not just for the EU, or on the national level, but for the institutions, universities, research institutes, and for the whole societal activity of knowledge production. What is technological sovereignty? What is the infrastructure of knowledge? Where does it start? Where does it end? Does it include cloud computing infrastructure? Does it include archival library infrastructures? Does it include Microsoft 365? And what are the right responses to the concentration of power and the emergence of new business models in the private sector which try to serve/capture this market? Should all do as the French did, for example, who just banned Microsoft and Google cloud services from their schools? Should we build our own infrastructures to have some form of sovereignty not just over content, but also in terms of hardware and software?
We as the Open Knowledge Foundation have been thinking about this a lot. How do we use the open definition or the open movement to fight not only with our peers for the things we’ve been historically advocating for but actually tackle the most pressing problems of our times, such as climate change? Maybe you have some input, or want to share a final comment regarding our role as an organisation, or the roles of organisations like ours.
My impression is that there is always some kind of cautious distance between mainstream open access / open culture advocates, and people who try to address open knowledge and open access through confrontational pirate ways. The relationship to legality has been a gap between these two communities. My impression is that there is still a lot of hope in various advocacy groups that it is possible to achieve change through advocacy or lobbying or working with policymakers. I don’t know whether those hopes are justified, but I think pirates have long been part, and oftentimes a positive force in these struggles, maybe there is now a historic moment where these two approaches need to work together more strategically. Piracy is far from the ideal solution, but currently it is the only one which is able to provide access to science and overwhelmingly publicly funded research published in books and journals. As long as someone else, preferably us, the academic community, or the businesses in this market are not providing legally something as comprehensive as the shadow libraries, we need them, we rely on them. We might as well do that openly and consciously, as part of a push for better legal alternatives, and as a pushback against the privatization of both knowledge and the infrastructures of knowledge production which is taking place today.
Lucas is a journalist, artist and researcher working in the intersections of digital culture, politics and humanities. For the last 17 years, he has been a free culture advocate and part of a wide range of commons-based initiatives fighting for power distribution and people's participation in decision-making. He is currently the Communications Lead at the Open Knowledge Foundation, and a PhD candidate in the Autonomous University of Madrid in the topics of the aesthetics of the commons.
Sara works with communities. She leads the Open Knowledge Network and manages the Frictionless Data community. Before joining Open Knowledge Foundation, she has worked on free access to information and quality education for all with public libraries from all across Europe.