In a digital era that destabilizes traditional notions of intellectual property, cultural producers must rethink information access.
Over the last several years, a number of pirate libraries have done just that. Collaboratively run digital libraries such as Aaaaaarg, Monoskop, Public Library, and UbuWeb have emerged, offering access to humanities texts and audiovisual resources that are technically ‘pirated’ and often hard to find elsewhere.
Though these sites differ somewhat in content, architecture, and ideological bent, all of them disavow intellectual copyright law to varying degrees, offering up pirated books and media with the aim of advancing information access.
“Information wants to be free,” has served as a catchphrase in recent internet activism, calling for information democracy, led by media, library and information advocates.
As online information access is increasingly embedded within the networks of capital, the digital text-sharing underground actualizes the Internet’s potential to build a true information commons.
With such projects, the archive becomes a record of collective power, not corporate or state power; the digital book becomes unlocked, linkable, and shareable.
Still, these sites comprise but a small subset of the networks of peer-to-peer file sharing. Many legal battles waged over the explosion of audiovisual file sharing through p2p services such as Napster, BitTorrent and MediaFire. At its peak, Napster boasted over 80 million users; the p2p music-sharing service was shut down after a high-profile lawsuit by the RIAA in 2001.
The US Department of Justice brought charges against open access activist Aaron Swartz in 2011 for his large-scale unauthorized downloading of files from the JStor Academic database. Swartz, who sadly committed suicide before his trial, was an organizer for Demand Progress, a campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was defeated in 2012. Swartz’s actions and the fight around SOPA represent a benchmark in the struggle for open-access and anti-copyright practices surrounding the digital book.
Aaaaaarg, Monoskop, UbuWeb and Public Library are representative cases of the pirate library because of their explicit engagement with archival form, their embrace of ideas of the digital commons within current left-leaning thought, and their like-minded focus on critical theory and the arts.
All of these projects lend themselves to be considered as libraries, retooled for open digital networks.
Aaaaaarg.org, started by Los Angeles based artist Sean Dockray, hosts 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.
The site is divided into a “Library,” in which users can search for texts by author; “Collections,” or user-generated grouping of texts designed for reading groups or research interests; and “Discussions,” a message board where participants can request texts and volunteer for working groups. Most recently, Aaaaaarg has introduced a “compiler” tool that allows readers to select excerpts from longer texts and assemble them into new PDFs, and a reading tool that allows readers to save reference points and insert comments into texts. 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.
Aaaaaarg has been threatened with takedowns a few times, but has survived by creating mirrored sites and reconstituted itself by varying the number of A’s in the URL. Its shifts in location, organization, and capabilities reflect both the decentralized, ad-hoc nature of its maintenance and the organizers’ attempts to elude copyright regulations. Text-sharing sites such as Aaaaaarg have also been referred to as shadow libraries, reflecting their quasi-covert status and their efforts to evade shutdown.
Monoskop.org, a project founded by media artist Dušan Barok, is a wiki for collaborative studies of art, media and the humanities that was born in 2004 out of Barok’s study of media art and related cultural practices. 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. Monoskop is comprised of two sister sites: the Monoskop wiki and Monoskop Log, the accompanying text repository. Monoskop Log is structured as a Wordpress site with links hosted on third-party sites, much like the rare-music download blogs that became popular in the mid-2000s. Though this architecture is relatively unstable, links are fixed on-demand and site mirroring and redundancy balance out some of the instability.
Monoskop 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. Barok notes that though there have been a small number of takedowns, people generally appreciate unrestricted access to the types of materials in Monoskop log, whether they are authors or publishers.
Public Library, a somewhat newer pirate library founded by Croatian Internet activist and researcher Marcell Mars and his collaborators, currently offers a collection of about 6,300 texts. The project frames itself through a utopian philosophy of building a truly universal library, radically extending enlightenment-era conceptions of democracy. 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, Public Library’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 dissident function as a kind of experimental provocation, their content is audience-specific rather than universal.
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. While many of the sites in the “pirate library” continuum source their content through community-based or peer-to-peer models, 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. The website’s philosophy blends the utopian ideals of avant-garde concrete poetry with the ideals of the digital gift economy, and it has specifically refused to accept corporate or foundation funding or adopt a more market-oriented business model.
Pirate Libraries vs. “The Sharing Economy”
In pirate libraries, information users become archive builders by uploading often-copyrighted content to shared networks.
Within the so-called “sharing economy,” users essentially lease e-book content from information corporations such as Amazon, which markets both the Kindle as platform. This centralization of intellectual property has dire impacts on the openness of the digital book as a collaborative knowledge-sharing device.
In contrast, the pirate library actualizes a gift economy based on qualitative and communal rather than monetized exchange. As Mackenzie Wark writes in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), “The gift is marginal, but nevertheless plays a vital role in cementing reciprocal and communal relations among people who otherwise can only confront each other as buyers and sellers of commodities.”
From theorizing new media art to building solidarity against repressive regimes, such communal information networks can crucially articulate shared bodies of political and aesthetic desire and meaning. According to author Matthew Stadler, literature is by nature communal. “Literature is not owned,” he writes. “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.”
In a roundtable discussion published in New Formations, Aaaaaarg founder Sean Dockray remarks that the site “actively explored and exploited the affordances of asynchronous, networked communication,” functioning upon the logic of the hack. Dockray continues: “But all of this is rather commonplace for what’s called ‘piracy,’ isn’t it?” Pirate librarianship can be thought of as a practice of civil disobedience within the stringent information environment of today.
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. In Public Library: An Essay, Public Library’s organizers write: “With the emergence of the internet… librarianship has been given an opportunity… to include thousands of amateur librarians who will, together with the experts, build a distributed peer-to-peer network to care for the catalog of available knowledge.”
Public Library frames amateur librarianship as a free, collaboratively maintained and democratic activity, drawing upon the language of the French Revolution and extending it for the 21st century. While these practices are democratic in form, they are not necessarily democratic in the populist sense; rather, they focus on bringing high theoretical discourses to people outside the academy. Accordingly, they attract a modest but engaged audience of critics, artists, designers, activists, and scholars.
The activities of Aaaaaarg and Public Library may fall closer to ‘peer preservation’ than ‘peer production,’ as the desires to share information widely and to preserve these collections against shutdown often come into conflict. In a recent piece for e-flux coauthored with Lawrence Liang, Dockray accordingly laments “the unfortunate fact that digital shadow libraries have to operate somewhat below the radar: it introduces a precariousness that doesn’t allow imagination to really expand, as it becomes stuck on techniques of evasion, distribution, and redundancy.”
UbuWeb and Monoskop, which digitize rare, out-of-print art texts and media rather than in-print titles, can be said to fulfill the aims of preservation and access. UbuWeb and Monoskop are openly used and discussed as classroom resources and in online arts journalism more frequently than the more aggressively anti-copyright sources; more on-the-record and mainstream visibility likely -- but doesn’t necessarily -- equate to wider usage.
From Alternative Space to Alternative Media
Aaaaaarg locates itself as a ‘scaffolding’ between institutions, a platform that unfolds between institutional gaps and fills them in, rather than directly opposing them. Over ten years after it was founded, it continues to provide a community for “niche” varieties of political critique.
Drawing upon different strains of ‘alternative networking,’ the digital text-sharing underground gives a voice to those quieted by the mechanisms of institutional archives, publishing, and galleries. On the one hand, pirate libraries extend the logic of alternative art spaces/artist-run spaces that challenge the “white cube” and the art market; instead, they showcase ways of making that are often ephemeral, performative, and anti-commercial.
Lawrence Liang refers to projects such as Aaaaaarg as “ludic libraries,” as they encourage a sense of intellectual play that deviates from well-established norms of utility, seriousness, purpose, and property.
Just as alternative, community-oriented art spaces promote “fringe” art forms, the pirate libraries build upon open digital architectures to promote “fringe” scholarship, art, technological and archival practices. Though the comparison between physical architecture and virtual architecture is a metaphor here, the impact upon creative communities runs parallel.
At the same time, the digital text-sharing underground builds upon Robert W. McChesney’s calls in Digital Disconnect for a democratic media system that promotes the expansion of public, student and community journalism. A truly heterogeneous media system, for McChesney, would promote a multiplicity of opinions, supplementing for-profit mass media with a substantial and varied portion of nonprofit and independent media.
In order to create a political system – and a media system – that reflects multiple interests, rather than the supposedly neutral status quo, we must support truly free, not-for-profit alternatives to corporate journalism and “clickbait” media designed to lure traffic for advertisers. We must support creative platforms that encourage blending high-academic language with pop-culture; quantitative analysis with art-making; appropriation with authenticity: the pirate libraries serve just these purposes.
Pirate libraries help bring about what Gary Hall calls the “unbound book” as text-form; as he writes, we can perceive such a digital book “as liquid and living, open to being continually updated and collaboratively written, edited, annotated, critiqued, updated, shared, supplemented, revised, re-ordered, reiterated and reimagined.” These projects allow us to re-imagine both archival practices and the digital book for social networks based on the gift.
Aaaaaarg, Monoksop, UbuWeb, and Public Library build a record of critical and artistic discourse that is held in common, user-responsive and networkable. Amateur librarians sustain these projects through technological ‘hacks’ that innovate upon present archival tools and push digital preservation practices forward.
Pirate libraries critique the ivory tower’s monopoly over the digital book. They posit a space where alternative communities can flourish.
Between the cracks of the new information capital, the digital text-sharing underground fosters 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.
From this we should take away the understanding that 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.