You Can’t Defend Public Libraries and Oppose File-Sharing

Opinion

The purpose of public libraries is exactly the same as the effect of file-sharing. You cannot defend one while opposing the other.

Public libraries started appearing in the mid-1800s. At the time, publishers went absolutely berserk: they had been lobbying for the lending of books to become illegal, as reading a book without paying anything first was “stealing”, they argued. As a consequence, they considered private libraries at the time to be hotbeds of crime and robbery. (Those libraries were so-called “subscription libraries”, so they were argued to be for-profit, too.)

British Parliament at the time, unlike today’s politicians, wisely disagreed with the publishing industry lobby – the copyright industry of the time. Instead, they saw the economic value in an educated and cultural populace, and passed a law allowing free public libraries in 1850, so that local libraries were built throughout Britain, where the public could take part of knowledge and culture for free.

In other words, they made explicit exceptions to the copyright monopoly for the benefit of public access to culture and knowledge. In most copyright monopoly legislation today, it says explicitly that monopoly holders to not have any kind of right to object to their works being displayed, read, and lent from public libraries. This can be traced back to the insights of 1850.

So how is this different from file-sharing? From manufacturing your own copies of knowledge and culture from others’ sources? Is it different at all?

Yes, it is different. It differs in efficiency. Where public libraries can educate one citizen at a time from one original book, file-sharing has the potential to educate millions at a time with the same effort spent.

Libraries and file-sharing do not differ in payment to copyright monopoly holders. You would frequently hear that authors are paid royalties when their books are borrowed from a library. This claim is not true. Authors do indeed get some slush money in most European countries, and this is based on library statistics, but it is no form of compensation for that library activity. The difference is crucial.

Rather, that money “from libraries” is a unilateral cultural grant that happens to use library statistics for data. It is not true that authors get money when their books are borrowed from libraries. In some cases, they do, but that’s mostly a coincidence. When Harry Potter in Swedish is borrowed from a Swedish library, for example, J.K. Rowling does not get a single penny for that. (The translator does, though. It’s a grant to promote culture availability in the local language, not to reward the author.) So the equivalence – the connection between lending and compensation – can be trivially disproven through examples.

Libraries and file-sharing do not differ in principle. The purpose of libraries was – is – to make culture and knowledge available to as many as possible, as efficiently as possible, for free – simply because of the greater socioeconomic benefit of an educated and cultural populace. How is this not file-sharing?

So we can observe that public libraries and file-sharing differ in scale and efficiency – and only in scale and efficiency. Quite a bit, even. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. I sometimes hear people trying to defend the copyright monopoly by saying that file-sharing makes public libraries too efficient, and therefore cannot be allowed.

I can’t do anything but shake my head at that.

That has to be a first in the public debate: Are those people actually standing up and demanding that public services, such as public libraries, be made less efficient, to have less output for the tax money spent on it?

No. That does not make sense. And they deserve to hear it, to hear the absolute silliness of their own argument.

You just cannot defend public libraries and oppose file-sharing at the same time. They are one and the same phenomenon. One is just vastly more efficient.

In a quote from the 1850s that went past my information flow in February 2009, I noted that a publisher of the time had argued, paraphrased, that “you cannot possibly allow people to read books for free! If you pass this law, no author will ever make a penny from books again! Not a single more book will be written if you pass this law!”

(Sadly, I have lost the source of that quote. If somebody recognizes it, I would love to re-source it.)

Indeed, no book has been written since 1850. And no movie or piece of music has been created since large-scale file sharing with the Internet arrived around 1999. Either that, or these arguments are completely bogus, and there are only gains to be had from enabling the largest library ever created.

History does repeat itself. As do the people trying to defend obsolete guild-like privileges, even across centuries.

We have built the most amazing public library ever created. All of humanity is able to access the collective culture and knowledge of all of humanity, twenty-four by seven, as well as contribute to that collective pool. All the tools are already in place, all the infrastructure already rolled out, all the training already completed. Not a single tax penny needs to be spent to accomplish this. The only thing we need to do is to remove the ban on using it.

Why are we letting a cartoon industry stand in the way of this?

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.

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