It is now over a month that my favourite network has been dead.
Library.nu the rare space for sharing of academic resources to a free and open community has succumbed to the pressures of publishing industry stalwarts who, in their quest for promoting the knowledge industry, are killing sources through which knowledge survives.
True, Library.nu, that Mecca for those of us who live in countries where public libraries are not well stocked and resources for procurement of books are low, was essentially a file sharing network. It allowed people to offer digital copies of books in their possession to be shared around the world for no commercial gain.
For scholars and learners around the world, this was the place to find books which would otherwise be unavailable in their local contexts without expending a lot of time and effort. And now it is closed with an R.I.P. sign on their website which once offered such promises of joy.
This shutting down of Library.nu is not new or unexpected. Large scale global networks of sharing information online have been persecuted ever since the emergence of the WWW. From the historic battles that Napster had to fight to allow users to share music which was under copyright to large companies, to the persistent wars that ThePirateBay resolutely fights, networks which counter the logic of the libertarian web dream have always come under huge pressures to shut down.
This is a part of a much larger debate around intellectual property rights and infringement within the digital world that we live in, and voices on both the sides are always going to be strident in their discussions of free and open knowledge. However, what I want to talk about is how these acts of sharing, which are being condemned as acts of ‘stealing’ or ‘piracy’ are actually endemic conditions of building digital networks.
The network is not merely a combination of elements. While the infrastructure and logistics of a network are crucial to its sustenance, the mere assemblage of these objects does not make a network.
It is now known that the networks that we occupy are alive and need different investments of human and non-human efforts and energies to sustain them. Or in other words, just putting together of servers and platforms is not what Facebook is about. Or what is the most important thing on Pinterest is actually what you do with it.
Similarly, just getting people on to the networks is not enough – Remember Diaspora? You don’t? That’s the point. It is highly possible to have failed networks that have all requisite infrastructures and a wide corpus of people who are a part of it. What really sustains a network is the ability of the members to act within them. Networks are not only places to occupy but also sites where people can perform different activities.
And it should come as a surprise to nobody that within the digital networks, the primary activity that people perform, is sharing. We share information about our lives, relationships, likes, political causes, and cultural objects that we are fond of. We share data about things that intrigue us, things we are concerned about, things that we need to know about. We share content including books that we like, videos that amuse us, and music that we need to connect through. All these social networks of sharing and collaboration form the basis of innovation and radical change, shaping our futures.
nd yet, these corporate networks which also allow for sharing are never looked at as piracy. Once in a while, a video on YouTube gets revoked because it has a sound track that might be owned by a big Music Industry. There might be an instance where Orkut or Google Plus might take down content which might be objectionable. Facebook alleges that it has bots which check for possible pirated content. But all in all, because these networks are so obviously tied in to both the circulation and production of capital and filling the coffers of wealthy corporate houses, remain unaffected by charges of piracy.
However, smaller independent networks – networks that are established to realise the true potentials of openness, sharing and collaboration – and do not necessarily run up big balances for private sectors, immediately get vilified as vice houses of piracy. The introduction of piracy as the demon to fight on the Internet has provoked many false advertisements that equate it to stealing a car, or robbing a bank.
In this, they try to obscure the fact that piracy – sharing of material – is a community activity. It subscribes to the logical flows of information and opens it to new audiences, interpretations and dialogues continually. What is often pathologised as piracy, is the basis of new and innovative knowledge practices, granting access to knowledge for constituencies and demographies which have been excluded from knowledge practice in the past.
What piracy threatens is not knowledge but the industries that seek to make their wealth out of knowledge economies. And to protect the interests of these limited few, independent file-sharing networks get targeted as promoting piracy whereas activities within corporate social networks are tolerated as benign.
Piracy, when it affects small scale producers or independent artists does need to be thought about. But at stake in those events is the larger conditions of commoditised cultural production and the alienation of the artist from their own products – forfeiting their rights to large corporate houses. What sharing as a phenomenon offers to us, is the promise of a new knowledge economy where affordability or remoteness do not become discriminatory factors for those keen to consume and share cultural products and knowledge.
The Pirate Party in Sweden has announced that File Sharing is a religion and is trying to make it into a practice that is sacred to all of us who thrive in these conditions of free and open knowledge. I want to join my voice to theirs, in the memory of that Promised Land – Library.nu – and the lords of free books, and ask for my right to Pirate Share in networks of my choice.