Los Angeles, CA - Last week a website called "library.nu" disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free.
And not just any books - not romance novels or the latest best-sellers - but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.
The texts ranged from so-called "orphan works" (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarkable effort of collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly: guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must alone count as a triumph of civilisation.
To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people - namely the users of the site - it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees?
They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.
Pirating to learn
"The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn."
The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading, learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.
Maybe they were students once, but went on to find jobs and found families. We made them in some cases - we gave them a four-year taste of the life of the mind before sending them on their way with unsupportable loans. In other cases, they made themselves, by hook or by crook.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? The publishers think it is a great success in the war on piracy; that it will lead to more revenue and more control over who buys what, if not who reads what. The pirates - the people who create and run such sites - think that shutting down library.nu will only lead to a thousand more sites, stronger and better than before.
But both are missing the point: the global demand for learning and scholarship is not being met by the contemporary publishing industry. It cannot be, not with the current business models and the prices. The users of library.nu - these barbarians at the gate of the publishing industry and the university - are legion.
They live all over the world, but especially in Latin and South America, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in India. It's hard to get accurate numbers, but any perusal of the tweets mentioning library.nu or the comments on blog posts about it reveal that the main users of the site are the global middle class. They are not the truly poor, they are not slum-denizens or rural poor - but nonetheless they do not have much money. They are the real 99 per cent (as compared to the Euro-American 1 per cent).
They may be scientists or scholars themselves: some work in schools, universities or corporations, others are doubly outside of the elite learned class - jobholders whose desire to learn is and will only ever be an avocation. They are a global market engaged in what we in the elite institutions of the world are otherwise telling them to do all the time: educate yourself; become scholars and thinkers; read and think for yourselves; bring civilisation, development and modernity to your people.
Sharing is caring
Library.nu was making that learning possible where publishers have not. It made a good show of being a "book review" site - it was called library.nu after all, and not "bookstore.nu". It was not cluttered with advertisements, nor did it "suggest" other books constantly. It gave straight answers to straightforward searches, and provided user reviews of the 400,000 or more books in the database.
It was only the fact that library.nu included a link to another site ("sharehosting" sites like ifile.it, megaupload.com, or mediafire.com) containing the complete version of a digital text that brought library.nu into the realm of what passes for crime these days.
But the legality of library.nu is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can't be long before reading a book - making an unauthorised copy in your brain - is also made illegal.
But library.nu shared books; it did not sell them. If it made any money, it was not from the texts themselves, but from advertising revenue. As with Napster in 1999, library.nu was facilitating discovery: the ability to search deeper and deeper into the musical or scholarly tastes fellow humans and to discover their connections that no recommendation algorithm will ever be able to make. In their effort to control this market, publishers alongside the movie and music industry have been effectively criminalising sharing, learning and creating - not stealing.
Users of library.nu did not have to upload texts to the site in order to use it, but they were rewarded if they did. There were formal rules (and informal ones, to be sure), concerning how one might "level up" in the library.nu community. The site developed as websites do, adding features here and there, and obviously expanding its infrastructure as necessary. The administrators of the site maintained absolute control over who could participate and who could not - no doubt in order to protect the site from skulking FBI agents and enthusiastic newbies alike.
Even a casual observer could have seen that the frequent changes to the site were the effects of the cat-and-mouse game underway as law authorities and publishers sought to understand and eventually seek legal action against this community. In the end, it was only by donating to the site that law authorities discovered the real people behind the site - pirates too have PayPal accounts.
Shutting down learning
The winter of 2012 has seen a series of assaults on file-sharing sites in the wake of the failed SOPA and PIPA legislation. Mega-upload.com (the brainchild of eccentric master pirate Kim Dotcom - he legally changed his name in 2005) was seized by the US Department of Justice; torrent site btjunkie.com voluntarily closed down for fear of litigation.
In the last few days before they closed for good, library.nu winked in and out of existence, finally (and ironically), displayed a page saying "this domain has been revoked by .nu domain" (the island nation of Niue). It prominently displays a link to a book (on Amazon!) called Blue Latitudes, about the voyage of Captain Cook. A story about that other kind of pirate branches off here.
So what does the shutdown of library.nu mean? One thing it means is that these barbarians - these pirates who are also scholars - are angry. We scholars have long been singing the praises of education, learning, mutual aid and the virtues of getting a good degree. We scholars have been telling the world of desperate learners to do just what they are doing, if not in so many terms.
So there are a lot of angry young middle-class learners in the world this month. Some are existentially angry about the injustice of this system, some are pragmatically angry they must now spend $100 - if they even have that much - on a textbook instead of on themselves or their friends.
All of them are angry that what looked to everyone like the new horizon of learning - and the promise of the vaunted new digital economy - has just disappeared behind the dark eclipse of a Munich judge's cease and desist order.
Writers and scholars in Europe and the US are complicit in the shutdown. The publishing companies are protecting themselves and their profits, but they do so with the assent, if not the active support, of those who still depend on them. They are protecting us - we scholars - or so they say. These barbarians - these desperate learners - are stealing our property and should be made to pay for it.
In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies' patents and profits.
The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is - legally speaking - nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever - and also illegal - local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.
Why doesn't the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy - and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.
Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route - making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.
But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off - especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot - or will not - deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.
Instead, they print a handful of copies - less than 100, often - and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.
To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher's black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.
What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?
Christopher M Kelty is an Associate Professor of Information Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.