This week journalists faced an attack on their right to report following their publication of an article on piracy. The piece, an interview with the operator of an unauthorized ebook site, angered publishers when the reporters named the site in question. The editors of two publications were subsequently hit with a criminal complaint in which they were accused of assisting copyright infringement. Meanwhile the operator of the site informs TorrentFreak that they intend to go international.
Just how far should liability for copyright infringement be stretched?
In years gone by it was fairly widely accepted that if you host infringing material without permission then that is illegal. Now we are used to the idea that linking to that material is also illegal, and even indexing a link that links to a page that links to a mere torrent file can be painted as infringement.
Book publishers in Germany, however, think they can take this never ending game to a whole new level.
Last Sunday Der Tagesspiegel published an interesting interview with a representative of a site offering ebooks without the permission of the authors. The site, which was founded in late 2012 and claims to be the largest pirate ebook site in Germany, says it serves up 1.5 million books every month.
“We are publishers, not shoplifters,” protested one of the site’s operators. “The servers we pay for with donations. I think the project is unique. In that sense, we are therefore a download platform for e-books that can be distinguished from others in that our offer is broad, like a library.”
The interview explained how publishers had developed an interest in the site and had tasked anti-piracy group GVU with an investigation.
“I say it openly: we are not interested in the legal opinion of German publishers,” the site’s owner responded. “We see ourselves as a supplier in the market, such as Amazon and [regular] bookstores.”
By now many readers will be wondering which site this is. Der Tagesspiegel obviously thought the same so quite reasonably named it as Boox.to.
The reaction from the publishers to that revelation was quite astonishing.
According to Buchreport the publishers filed a criminal complaint, not against Boox.to, but against both Der Tagesspiegel and Zeit.de who had republished the article. Their claim: by naming the site the publications had assisted copyright infringement.
“With the direct and multiple naming of the Internet address the reader is immediately aware of the illicit supply of the website. With regard to objective journalistic reporting there was no need for direct nomination,” the publishers write in their complaint.
“The publication of the Website and its Internet address immediately enabled a broad mass of readers to become aware of the site. The reader is also indirectly encouraged to take advantage of the offer, taking advantage of the illegal site that has been highlighted by the play of the interview.”
Speaking with TorrentFreak, the admin of Boox.to says he was “enthusiastic” when he learned of the criminal complaint, but the best was yet to come.
“Soon people found out that the online magazine of the German Book Publishers Association had itself published the complete URL of the site. Well, then there was just laughter and tears,” Spiegelbest told us.
“So the criminal complaint was publicly dumped during the first few hours. The criminal complaint itself was made as a matter of principle without any prospect of success in a German court room.”
Although the publishers were quick to take action against the news sites, they’re apparently struggling to do much about the site itself. The secret, Spiegelbest told TorrentFreak, is in the way the site is setup.
“What is really new in Germany for the ebooks is that we cannot be abused practically,” he explains. “We have a hidden server (Tor) with our content. The public address is our proxy. So this proxy can be abused but we have a second proxy running to replace it. So of course you can abuse our proxy but an international court order will cost a lot more than replacing the proxy. That’s why there is little effort to take our site down. It’s a matter of finances.”
And now it appears that Germany just isn’t big enough for Boox.
“We are planning to open our site for ebooks in all languages. This is our vision for the future. For the weeks ahead we have to cope with an escalation in the number of new registrations. But in 2014 an international site (for all languages) may well be our project,” Spiegelbest concludes.
It’s notable that the criminal complaint also named the site in question so that the authorities could properly investigate the matter. Maybe the publishers should have instead performed a creative mime, with the police asking “Is it a TV show? Is it a movie? Is it a book?”
Reporting is not a game of charades and it is definitely not, as the publishers tried to suggest, an act of copyright infringement to refer to a pirate site by name. Streisand Effect in 3….2….1