In early August, Indian users who accessed a website that once let them download books and scholarly journals for free found themselves locked out of the site. The landing page to Z-Library refused to load, and for some flashed a warning banner stating the site had been blocked by a court order. The block follows Delhi Tis Hazari Court’s (West) order to India’s Ministry of Communications and IT to direct Internet Service Providers (ISP) to block Z-Library’s website “within a period of one week from today (on August 1)”. The Ministry of Communications and IT was also one of the 12 defendants in the case against the shadow library, filed by Taxmann Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Z-Library is a mirror of Library Genesis (LibGen), one of the most popular shadow libraries, that lets visitors access copyrighted books and scholarly journals for free, much to the chagrin of e-book and academic journal publishers. Shadow or mirror libraries are online databases that duplicate digital records like e-books or academic articles. They are structured in a way to minimise space for backup data while enabling the continuation of critical processing in the event of the loss of a disk containing related databases. This has enabled several users to quickly compile a list of unblocked links that could take them to the banned website via another digital route. Publishers have censured these ‘rogue websites ’for stealing copyrighted content. In one instance, these sites were compared to the mythological nine-headed serpent called Hydra. It was believed that if one of its heads was cut off, two more would appear to take its place.
But several academicians and authors support the existence of such online repositories for advancing science and knowledge.
Scientists and researchers are funded by governments or foundations to carry out research and experiments. They share their findings and knowledge with broader society through journals owned by large publishers. Authors do not receive any compensation for publishing their work in journals. They voluntarily submit their articles to these publishers to get them peer-reviewed. These reviewers are unsung heroes who go through pre-print scientific articles for free and share their comments.
Once approved for publishing, in most cases, the publisher who runs the journal gets the article’s copyright transferred to itself from the author. It then sells the paper on either a pay-per-use or a bulk subscription model to readers. In the pre-digital era, publishers had to incur the cost of printing, packaging and posting copies of the journal to subscribers in various parts of the world. Their primary readers were students and scholars in universities, which received the journals and stacked them in their libraries for access.
The Internet age that began in the early nineties saw an explosion of interest for the concept of open access in academic circles. The idea of its proponents was simple: as the cost of making a digital copy is practically zero, access to scientific articles must be made free. The new millennium also brought in an era where electronic data could be made available almost instantly everywhere. The digital age brought down the cost of publishing and distribution for publishers.
This moment was rightly captured by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) two decades ago. The initiative arose from a conference convened by the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary. BOAI is a declaration of principles relating to the open access movement.
“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good,” BOAI’s first sentence of its 2002 Declaration reads. “The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.”
About the same time, Creative Commons (CC), a U.S.-based non-profit organisation came out in support of expanding access to a range of creative works available for others to build upon legally. Wikipedia is one of CC’s licensees.
Just two years after the open access movement began, several universities in the U.S. threatened to cancel subscriptions to academic journals in protest at what they called exorbitant pricing. “It’s not just that the prices have risen much faster than inflation, it’s the practice of ‘bundling ’journals together. Often, we have to buy hundreds of journals we don’t want to get those we do,” Michael Keller, University Librarian at Stanford told the British Medical Journal about the institute’s plan to cancel subscriptions.
Such threats led to publishers reworking their business model. One economic decision that came out of this tussle was the ‘author pays ’model, which meant that the author had to pay the journal for publishing their article online.
While publishers were tinkering with their business model to find a profitable way forward, a database was slowly being built in post-Soviet land with the help of hundreds of thousands of uncoordinated contributions.
This massive network came to be called Library Genesis (LibGen) in 2008, and due to its complex history, it is unclear who the actual owner of the site is. Between then and April 2014, according to an analysis by Bodó Balázs, a researcher at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, the size of the LibGen catalog grew from nearly 34,000 to nearly 1.2 million records. This has nearly tripled in the last seven years to roughly 3.2 million records.
Another shadow library that grew in prominence during this time is Sci-Hub, which offers scientific journals and papers for free to users. Both SciHub and LibGen share copyrighted books and articles for free, and the duo are known to operate around the Russian-speaking milieu. Balázs notes that both these shadow libraries exist and thrive in Russia due to lax copyright law, weak IP protection rules, and early access to modern computers in the country. He points out that this part of the world had early access to desktops and databases, which helped them develop large-scale digital text archives.
Shadow libraries like LibGen and SciHub have become a thorn in the flesh for large publishers who wield control over nearly half of all scientific literature and make a hefty profit from selling journals to university libraries. In 2021, Netherlands-based Elsevier’s publishing arm, the owner of journals like Cell and Lancet, reported profits of around $1.1 billion on $3 billion revenue.
While investors are happy, scientists submitting their articles to large publishers know they are getting a bad deal. This is one of the major reasons why digital piracy is an ever-raging controversy in academic circles as people confront questions relating to the ethics of piracy while wrangling with legal publishing models which underpay contributors and depend heavily on unpaid volunteers.
A case in point is Sci-Hub’s battle to make information free for all. Founded by Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and programmer, the site lets users download scientific papers and academic literature. The resources available in the library are pay-walled content taken from prominent journals. This database has been in the cross-hairs of large publishing houses like Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society (ACS). Elsevier has taken Sci-Hub to court in more than one nation. In 2017, in the U.S., a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million in damages after ruling that Sci-Hub violated U.S. copyright law. In December, 2020, Elsevier, ACS, and Wiley filed a lawsuit against Sci-Hub in the Delhi High Court, and have named Elbakyan as a defendant. Their aim is to compel Indian ISPs to block both Sci-Hub and LibGen.
“Pirate websites like Sci-Hub threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal student data. They compromise the security of libraries and higher education institutions to gain unauthorised access to scientific databases and other proprietary intellectual property, and illegally harvest journal articles and e-books,” said Elsevier in a statement to The Hindu
Elbakyan — and some users in India — remain undeterred. A chart on the Sci-Hub site showed that India was one of the top five countries in terms of downloaded articles per month, with over two million downloads to its name at the last count — though this may not be accurate due to VPN and robot use. Users in China have downloaded over 30 million copies a month at the last count.
“We can also say, that knowledge belongs to people. Academic publishers have stolen that knowledge from people and locked behind expensive paywalls. Hence the task is to return knowledge back to the people,” Elbakyan told The Hindu. Elsevier countered by stating it was helping the research community in its own way. The publisher said that since the start of the pandemic, ACS, Elsevier, and Wiley made their COVID-19 articles available for free. It also said it that it offered free virtual workshops attended by over 40,000 people in India.
The Netherlands-based publisher is firm on taking the legal route to regulate shadow libraries, pointing out that India does the same for its pirated movies. “The American Chemical Society (ACS), Elsevier and Wiley have applied to the High Court of Delhi in New Delhi requesting that Indian internet service providers block access to the pirate websites Sci-Hub and LibGen within the country,” said Elsevier in its statement.
Some published authors don’t agree with banning shadow libraries. Indian constitutional law scholar and science fiction author Gautam Bhatia even cited a shadow library in the acknowledgements section of his book, The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts (HarperCollins India, 2019). He admitted that writing his book wouldn’t have been possible without LibGen, as they were many books he couldn’t afford. He further added in his note that, “doing scholarly work outside the gated precincts of a university is like trying to swim with one arm and one leg.”
Incidentally, Mr. Bhatia’s own science fiction novel, The Wall (HarperCollins India, 2020), was available for download on Z-Library. He pointed out that fiction writers need to show rising sales numbers for more publishing opportunities, but scientists and researchers rely on factors such as citations and peer reviews. “I mean, readers should be aware of that. They should be aware that if on an individual level, everyone downloads from Z-Library, then yeah, the author that you like enough to download [their] books — they’re not able to write more. But that’s it: that’s an individual call for individual people to make. I have no judgment on anyone who does download books to read because you know, they still cost money,” Mr. Bhatia told The Hindu.
From a legal perspective, he noted that jurisdictions and internet service providers treated movie and television piracy with more seriousness than book piracy, depending on the location. For now, only website access through one of the main URLs to Z-Library is blocked, rather than a total shut down of the shadow library. According to a court filing from September 7, Taxmann Publications has also asked the court to block an alternate link allegedly created by Z-Library.
As of September 1, Z-Library boasted a collection of 11,087,784 books and 84,837,645 articles.