File Sharing Sites are Libraries of the Digital Age

Here is a hypothetical scenario for you. Imagine I would want to create a new service – sot of an open data repository. I would simply provide users with space, and some means to catalog and organize the “stuff” they would “donate” towards the service. Anyone could come and add data to the repository, and any member would be able to access and consume that data at no cost. Let’s also say that this repository would not be geared towards sharing original works, but rather for popular and sought after content both copyrighted and public domain alike. It would store books, magazines, movies, music, etc..

What do you call such a service?

Well, it depends on the domain. If we place this service in analog space, we would call it a public library. People donate used books and media, and the library loans them out to the patrons for free. Libraries are valuable institutions, and they have an important role in facilitating exchange of knowledge and cataloging our cultural heritage. No one in their right mind is going to say they are harmful.

What if we put such a service in a digital space, and allow people to donate and lend out digital copies. Do you know what we call such a service? Well, maybe I’m off base here but I’d call such a service a torrent tracker. You may disagree, but think about this for a second.

Isn’t a torrent site at least a bit like a gigantic public library with a very broad selection and limitless supply of copies of the content you are seeking for. Aren’t file sharing sites simply a translation of the analog concept of a public library into twenty first century digital landscape of the web? Aren’t they nearly the same in spirit and mission? Both types of services aim to facilitate sharing and spreading of knowledge – it’s just that one can do it much more efficiently than the other.

Tell me what is the difference between these two scenarios:

  1. Going to a public library, taking out a movie, watching it and then bringing it back
  2. Downloading a movie from a torrent site, watching it and then deleting it to make space on your HD

The main difference is the method by which you obtain the movie and the format in which you obtain it. On one hand we have an analog method of distribution and a physical copy (a DVD). On the other hand we have a digital distribution and a digital copy. The digital download is faster, and the digital copy is more durable (it does not wear out due to use). Other than that though, the two scenarios are very similar. In both cases you get to see your movie free of charge. In both cases the copyright holders don’t get paid. And yet somehow one of these scenarios is considered a “lost sale”. Something is wrong here.

One could argue that in the first scenario you are compelled to return the physical copy back to the library. There is no such compulsion in the second one. Then again, I could argue that a library patron could easily copy the DVD before returning it. Besides, duplicating a library owned DVD for personal use still does not affect the copyright holder. It does not make them any poorer.

So if you take a stance against file sharing, and argue that it is harmful to copyright holders, then wouldn’t you also be able to say the same about public libraries? After all they are in the same business of distributing copyrighted content for free. Are they exempt from scorn and hatred only because they are fairly inefficient at what they do? Or do copyright holders tolerate them just because they are sort of built into the fabric of our society and are protected by tradition and existing social norms.

I leave you with this little nugget: if public libraries did not exist, would it be possible to establish a library system today? Or would they be facing the same legal issues as said file sharing sites? Think about this. I believe you know the answer to these questions. What does this say about the current effort to squash and de-legalize file sharing? Are we really doing the right thing here? Or are we killing a wonderful new emergent public institution that is still in it’s infancy?

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7 Responses to File Sharing Sites are Libraries of the Digital Age

  1. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    In a previous article you say “piracy is not theft”. In the same way, filesharing is not like a library.

    In a library, there is a physical artifact which the library has legally purchased. The library can only loan out the number of artifacts that they have purchased, and once they have run out there can be no more loaning until those artifacts have been returned.

    This is a fundamental difference from piracy. With piracy, there is no physical artifact, and the number of copies available is effectively unlimited.

    This looks to me like a broken metaphor, especially in light of the differences, which you yourself highlighted in the earlier post.

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  2. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Shh… You’re spoiling my stash of untapped media resources at my local library.

    I find that the library is a good place for me to try out full version of games. I didn’t know there were crappy games based on Lost and CSI.

    For the Singapore library system, a free account (you immediately have one if you’re a citizen/PR) allows one to borrow 4 books at a time, and only books. One can also pay an annual fee of S$21 for the ability to borrow multimedia items. This paid subscription allows me to borrow 8 items total of books & other multimedia items, like DVDs, audiobooks, PC games, etc. I suspect this goes to paying some sort of fee to appease the copyright gods to allow a product to be in the library.

    One thing I would like is for console games to be in the library as well. It’s weird that PC games are there, but not the consoles’.

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  3. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I believe you have a well written argument here, but there is one argument that comes to mind.

    When it comes to multimedia, a library typically has older media. It’s not as if the newest DVD release is going to be right there for free checkout – you have to go to a movie rental business in order to see that one. After the media has been retired from the popular market, it becomes likely that the sales of the media are shallow enough that the assumed ‘losses’ fall within a margin of error (or something like that). It has been this way at nearly every library I’ve been to.

    Don’t get me wrong; I fully support file sharing!

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Square: Yeah, you are right – newest releases don’t surface in libraries that quickly. They could though via donations.

    The fact they don’t that’s more to do with the analog distribution method and physical media than with anything else.

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  5. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    Every time someone posts an article about DRM, I’m tempted to link a series of articles by Eric Flint. He’s an alternative history author, by the way. His stuff deals mostly with paper publishing, not digital goods, so it’s particularly relevant here.
    The fundamental point he hammers home is that copyright (and as enforcement of that copyright, DRM) is an evil. It’s a necessary one, but it should exist no longer, nor be enforced no harder, than is necessary to fulfill its purpose. That purpose is to pay AUTHORS for their work without imposing limits on their creative expression (like, say, patronage does). Note that it’s not studios or publishing houses, but authors.

    I suggest reading the whole thing. It’s very well thought out, although it does get ranty at times. Well worth the couple of hours it takes to read it.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Daosus: Good point – its not exactly like a library. I’m not saying that file sharing sites ARE libraries. I’m saying they are the next logical progression in the same direction.

    When we needed an efficient way of sharing knowledge and cultural goods we established the library system to store and distribute the physical artifacts that store our data.

    But we are in a digital age, and ever day we deal with more goods that exist only in digital realm. The library loan system does not work with digitized data. It makes no sense to apply a model based on scarcity of physical media to digital goods that can be effortlessly duplicated.

    Therefore file sharing is the logical progression – a new model for sharing and exchanging data. It is not like a library – it is beyond. File sharing does for us what libraries did for our ancestors – it enables us to freely share knowledge and culture free of charge.

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  7. Bob Mac UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Daosus: The library loan system does not work with digitized data.

    This is actually not at all true. My local library and most libraries in my state have now adopted Library2Go, which is a digital books, media library system powered by overdrive. It allows patrons of the library to browse a central database of materials, check them out digitally and consume the content for a certain period of time. It is absolutely arbitrary to set a time limit or copy limit on these resources, but the library does so to protect authors/copyright holders. There does appear to be a fundamental difference between libraries and file-sharing based on limitations. Libraries used to be limited by physical resources (only one person could have a book at a time). These limits transfer just fine to digital resources. File-sharing is more akin to a new distribution system that may or may not replace the previous one (book stores, etc). Amazon and iTunes are examples of legal file-sharing systems as kindle books are copied from central servers again and again, but people have to pay for each copy so both publisher and author are paid. The benefit to the public is this: file-sharing has FORCED, at least the book industry, to drop prices on digital books (.99 – $2.99). The music business has also be completely transformed because of file-sharing.

    Illegal file-sharing will never die, just like there was always a minority who copied CDs or tapes. People were recording movies on VHS tapes and creating a personal library and letting people borrow them, making copies for them, long before file-sharing. But what is dramatic is how the file-sharing has sparked a real revolution in entertainment. Granted, the creators and gatekeepers are being drug into a new era kicking and screaming (which is what we see with SOPA and Megaupload being shut down), but they will eventually accept that change is inevitable.

    File-sharing has ALWAYS been here and always will be in one form or another. It’s only viewed as “illegal” right now because it’s new and the gatekeepers don’t want their boat to be rocked.

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