The hacker tenet, “Information wants to be free,” can be read as both a description of the potential of digital information economies and as an extension of library notions of information democracy. As digital relations of production radically destabilize traditional notions of intellectual property, they force information specialists and cultural producers to rethink information access for a new era.
The dominant narrative of the digital era, chronicled by Lawrence Lessig (2004) in his book Free Culture, is that of a dramatic expansion of copyright law to protect the commercial interests of major media corporations. With the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, the copyright term was lengthened to 95 years, preventing a massive number of works from entering the public domain (p. 135). As Lessig laments, the expansion of intellectual property law is pursued in the interests of a meager 2% of works that have any lasting commercial value. The real harm is to the remaining 98% of works that are not famous, not commercially exploited, and no longer available as a result (p. 221). Taken to such an extreme, commercial protection massively inhibits cultural exposure and innovation.
Despite claims of information democracy, we actually witness the “enclosure of the information commons” into a system of monopoly and lease by Silicon Valley conglomerates such as Amazon and Google. Rather than owning physical books, for example, we rent e-books for Kindle and Nook. With e-books, these corporations control devices, software platforms and content in a vertically integrated profit model. In his essay “Interface, Access, Loss” (2013), Sean Dockray points out how e-readers eradicate the “First Sale Doctrine,” which allowed owners of rightfully purchased works to share or re-sell them as they saw fit. He continues:
“The e-reader is an individualizing device. It is the object that establishes trusted access with books stored in the cloud and ensures that each and every person purchases their own rights to read each book. The only sharing that is allowed is sharing the device itself… This is no library — or, it is a library only in the most impoverished sense of the word” (190).
In other words, the e-reader’s interface is not an OPAC coupled with a library card – it is a marketing tool, pure and simple. And as a marketing tool, it privileges access to works deemed commercially profitable for a mass audience.
But in opposition to this expansion of immaterial private property, a digital text-sharing underground has emerged that truly does believe that “information wants to be free.” Collaboratively-maintained “pirate libraries” (my term) such as aaaaaarg, Monoskop, UbuWeb, and Memory of the World offer public access to resources focused on contemporary art, critical theory, media studies and related fields. Though these sites differ somewhat in content, architecture, and ideological bent, all of them flout intellectual copyright law to varying degrees, offering up “pirated” books and media with the aim of advancing information access and creative scholarship.
As acts of civil disobedience, these projects promise both the realization and destruction of the public library. They promote information democracy while calling the professional institution of the Library into question, allowing amateurs to upload, catalog, lend and maintain collections. Because they offer free access to copyrighted media, it is easy to see how intellectual property owners could cast these text-sharing networks as threats to publishers, to artists’ profits, or to “real” libraries. This view of the sites’ threats to book sales, in my opinion, is exaggerated and alarmist. Rather, I propose treating pirate libraries as “digital alternative spaces” that allow for the use (and creative misuse) of art and academic discourses outside of institutional settings. The pirate library actualizes a gift economy where, as Matthew Stadler (2013) writes:
“… Literature is not owned. It is, by definition, a space of mutually negotiated meanings that never closes or concludes, a space that thrives on — indeed requires — open access and sharing,” (175).
While democratic in the sense that they are free and collaboratively maintained, these resources are not necessarily democratic in the populist sense. They attract a modest but engaged audience of critics, artists, designers, activists, and scholars.
UbuWeb, founded in 1996 by conceptual artist/writer Kenneth Goldsmith, is the largest online archive of avant-garde art resources. Its holdings include sound, video and text-based works dating from the historical avant-garde era to today. Though informal, non-commercial and independently run, the site has come to be recognized as an important scholarly resource. UbuWeb focuses on making available out of print, obscure or difficult to access artistic media, stating that uploading such historical artifacts doesn’t detract from the physical value of the work; rather, it enhances it. This sharing of out of print/hard to find materials, common across the pirate libraries, is illegal, yet good for society, as Lessig argues. It increases exposure without harming artists, as the work is otherwise unavailable or under-available (69). UbuWeb intentionally uploads lower-quality video and audio files, emphasizing that researchers should go to the rightful owner for archival-quality copies. Additionally, the site will remove media from its archive upon artist’s request.
Monoskop.org, a like-minded project, describes itself as “a wiki for collaborative studies of art, media and the humanities.” Its significant holdings — about 3,000 full-length texts and many more excerpts, links and citations—include avant-garde and modernist magazines, writings on sound art, scanned illustrations, and media theory texts. As a wiki, any user can edit any article or upload content, and see their changes reflected immediately. Like UbuWeb, the site makes clear that it is offering content under the fair-use doctrine and that this content is for personal and scholarly use, not commercial use.
Aaaaaarg.org, started by Los Angeles based artist Sean Dockray, is probably the largest of these resources, hosting full-text pdfs of over 50,000 books and articles. The library is connected to a an alternative education project called the Public School, which serves as a platform for self-organizing lectures, workshops and projects in cities across the globe. Aaaaaarg’s catalog is viewable by the public, but upload/download privileges are restricted through an invite system, thus circumventing copyright law.
While Dockray has expressed criticism of intellectual property law in some writings and interviews, criticizing this form of property was not Aaaaaarg’s initial intent. He says, “It was simply about… the sharing of knowledge between various individuals and groups that I was in correspondence with at the time but who weren’t necessarily in correspondence with each other.” Though the library is easily searchable, it doesn’t maintain high-quality metadata. Dockray and other organizers intend to preserve a certain subjective and informal quality, focusing more on discussion and collaboration than correct preservation and classification practice.
Memory of the world, a younger “pirate library,” offers a collection of about 5,000 texts, but frames itself through a somewhat utopian philosophy of building a truly universal library. Through democratizing the tools of librarianship – book scanning, classification systems, cataloging, information – it promises a broader, de-institutionalized public library. In Public Library (an essay), Memory of the world’s organizers frame p2p libraries as “fragile knowledge infrastructures built and maintained by brave librarians practicing civil disobedience which the world of researchers in the humanities rely on.” This civil disobedience is a politically motivated refutation of intellectual property law and the orientation of information networks toward venture capital and advertising. While the pirate libraries fulfill this function as a kind of experimental provocation, their content, as stated before, is audience-specific rather than universal.
Between the cracks of the new information capital, the digital text-sharing underground fosters a the coming-into-being of another kind of information society, one in which the historical record is the democratically-shared basis for new forms of knowledge. Furthermore, we should not view alternatives to corporate monopoly as covert and illicit, carried out (metaphorically) under cover of night. Rather, piracy is normal and the public domain it builds is abundant. While these practices will continue just beneath the official surface of the information economy, it is high time for us to demand that our legal structures catch up.
Dockray, S. (2013). Interface, Access, Loss. In M. Lewandowska & L. Ptak (Eds.), Undoing Property? Berlin: Sternberg.
Fuller, M. (2011, May 4). In the Paradise of Too Many Books: An Interview with Sean Dockray. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/paradise-too-many-books-interview-sean-dockray
Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press.
Mars, M., Zarroug, M., & Medak, T. (n.d.). Public library (an essay). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.memoryoftheworld.org/blog/2014/10/27/public-library-an-essay/
Myers, J. (2009, August 26). Four Dialogues 2: On AAAARG. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://openspace.sfmoma.org/2009/08/four-dialogues-2-on-aaaarg/
Scanners, collectors and aggregators. On the ‘underground movement’ of (pirated) theory text sharing. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://openreflections.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/scanners-collectors-and-aggregators-on-the-‘underground-movement’-of-pirated-theory-text-sharing
Stadler, M. (2013). From Ownership to Belonging. In M. Lewandowska & L. Ptak (Eds.), Undoing Property? Berlin: Sternberg.
Some Related Resources Not Mentioned in this Essay: