The Fifth Global Congress Polis Conversation

Possibly a few of you were part of the ‘Polis’ conversation we ran at the last Global Congress in September 2018. Polis is a participated-directed survey tool that we’ve been using to hold large-scale conversations. In this case, the conversation brought together 335 past and present Global Congress participants into conversation over over two weeks.

Here, finally, is a write up of the results. And with the strong caveat that participation was not randomized, they’re pretty interesting.

We reached out to over 1000 Global Congress alum and current attendees. Some 335 participated over two weeks. The results are not based on and do not have the statistical power of a random sample. Nonetheless, they’re individually and collectively a pretty interesting portrait of the community.

Full Report

Among the major takeaways: Polis does some some clustering of voting to identify major tendencies within the participating group. In this case, the results suggest that there is both a larger ‘strong IP’ contingent in the community and a more distinctive ‘US law school copyright reformer’ perspective than I would have guessed.  Both are differentiated from a larger group of–let’s provisionally call them–‘global IP skeptics’.

There results also contain snapshots of community opinion across a wide range of issues:

Among the major results: there is both a larger ‘strong IP’ contingent in the community than I would have guessed and a more distinctive ‘US law school copyright reformer’ perspective.  There are also a bunch of snapshots of the community across a wide range of issues like these:

(Green=Agree, Red=Disagree, Grey=Pass, White=Did not vote)

For those of you who have been part of or who have an interest in the contours of the IP ‘public interest’ community, the full results are worth a look.

The Piracy Wars are Over. Let’s Talk about Data Incumbency.

A few years ago I changed the name of this site from Media Piracy in Emerging Economies–named after the report that was its primary content–to The Piracy Years. Part of my intent was to create a better container for the reports and projects that followed. Part of it was to signal my sense that much of this work belonged to an era that, in important respects, was closing.

From the early 2000s to the mid 2010s, piracy dominated conversations about the future of culture and the regulation of the Internet. The big culture industries–recorded music, TV and film, and to a lesser extent publishing and software–treated the open Internet as a threat to their businesses and, myopically and often cynically, to culture in general.

By 2019, nearly all of those industries had successful moved toward online business models. The quantity of production of new work across all the major sectors has boomed. Revenues have recovered and grown. And cheap digital services have displaced a lot of the demand once met only through unauthorized downloading.

As the proposed EU copyright reforms demonstrate, piracy still plays an outsized role in policy debates. But it plays a marginal and declining role in shaping most areas of the cultural economy. And as it declines we can see more easily the underlying issues in the cultural economy that that the piracy debate effectively obscured.

The Piracy Wars are Over. Let’s Talk about Data Incumbency” is a step toward defining those underlying issues. From Wired:

The dearth of data on how the big intermediaries—record labels, studios, publishers, and now internet platforms like YouTube, Amazon, and Spotify—structure cultural markets is a long-standing problem. These companies tell creators how much they’re getting paid, but they rarely disclose who else is getting a cut, how their peers are paid, and what factors contribute to differences in promotion or placement. They reveal little about the flow of content, attention, and money that make up these ecosystems.

The reason for this secrecy isn’t a mystery. It’s a big advantage to know more about your market than your competitors, users, customers, and—ultimately—regulators. Controlling this information raises barriers to competition and makes it easy for anyone sitting on the information-poor side of a negotiation to get taken advantage of without quite being able to say how.


What would an open-data agenda for the creative economy look like? It could begin with public ownership registries and open metadata standards, which would create a shared framework for identifying and tracing the ownership of copyrighted work. It could include measures to strengthen competition for users among platform services, like the “data portability” requirements built into the European GDPR or the more ambitious idea of reorganizing simple platform functions (like social media or video posting) around open protocols analogous to email. It could include reporting on the display results for content on online platforms, especially as Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple, and others become vertically integrated businesses that compete with third-party content. The EU is talking about this at the level of principles, if not yet applications. Open-data requirements would also need to work in areas where precedents are thin, including data on flows of attention, activity, and money, as well as the private agreements that shape the treatment of content. They would look at cultural ecosystems rather than just the internet, and so encompass both offline and online intermediaries.

Russian Shadow Libraries in the Washington Post

Bodo Balazs and I wrote a short piece on the Russian history of shadow libraries for the Washington Post. Here’s an excerpt:

What will future historians will see as the major Russian contribution to early 21st-century Internet culture? It might not be troll farms and other strategies for poisoning public conversation — but rather, the democratization of access to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Over the last decade, Russian academics and activists have built free, remarkably comprehensive online archives of scholarly works. What Napster was to music, the Russian shadow libraries are to knowledge.

Much of the current attention to these libraries focuses on Sci-Hub, a huge online library created by Kazakhstan-based graduate student Aleksandra Elbakyan. Started in 2011, Sci-Hub has made freely available an archive of over 60 million articles, drawn primarily from paywalled databases of major scientific publishers. Its audience is massive and global. In 2017, the service provided nearly 200 million downloads. Because most scholars in high-income countries already have paid access to the major research databases through their university libraries, its main beneficiaries are students and faculty from middle- and low-income countries, who frequently do not.

Pro-tip: Don’t Raid the Law School During Finals

From the Uruguay coda to Shadow Libraries by Jorge Gemetto and Mariana Fossatti:

We end with a familiar scene. On an October morning in 2013, students arrived at the University of the Republic in Montevideo to find a major police operation underway. In collaboration with Interpol, the organized crime unit had raided fifteen copy shops in the area surrounding the law school and detained thirty-two people (El País 2013a). The timing was provocative. The law school-—the largest unit at the university with more than fourteen thousand enrolled students (Udelar 2013)—was in the middle of exams. News of the raid spread quickly. The arrests and confiscated photocopy machines were televised and the topic trended on social networks, where it met an avalanche of criticism….

Perhaps predictably, then, the academic community reacted strongly to the copy shop closures and arrests. Shortly after the raid, the Federation of University Students (FEUU) published a declaration calling for “free and democratic access” to the full corpus of human knowledge (Montevideo Portal 2013). A few days later, students held a demonstration in front of the law school to protest the closures (El Observador 2013). The Student Center at the law school, in turn, launched a petition to demand better access to course materials and reform of the copyright law, including the creation of educational exceptions and the decriminalization of nonprofit infringement. The campaign collected 10,000 signatures and resulted in the presentation of a draft reform bill to Danilo Astori, then vice president of Uruguay (El País 2013b)…. Continue reading “Pro-tip: Don’t Raid the Law School During Finals”

The Copy Shop and the Cloud

From the Shadow Libraries chapter on Brazilian universities by Pedro Mizukami and Jhessica Rheia:

In Brazil, debates about access to educational materials in higher education have been dominated for years by disputes about the legal and moral implications surrounding photocopying. Until 1998, Brazilian copyright law permitted anyone to make full, single copies of protected works for personal, not-for-profit use. This limitation on copyright protection anchored a complex web of curricular and student practices that developed in the course of the 1970s and 1980s as photocopiers came into widespread use. When that permission was withdrawn in the copyright reform act of 1998 (Law 9610/98), publishers tried to recapture that part of the market—first by trying to persuade universities to negotiate licenses and later opting for police raids to break the copy culture on university campuses. For the most part, these efforts failed, leaving university copy culture largely unaffected and creating a stalemate on copyright reform that continues to this day. In the meantime, parts of the photocopying ecosystem have shifted online—though publisher enforcement efforts have undercut the emergence of any large-scale shadow libraries to rival the Russian examples from chapter 1.

While parts of the publishing ecosystem have moved toward open access models (in which Brazil has been a leading international force), undergraduate students’ needs are still mostly served by conventionally licensed content and university life continues to rely heavily on infringement as a means for access. Attempts at collective management have failed, and business models for paid online access have—so far—offered debatable value for universities. As students and institutions move toward digital materials and models of access, Brazil is in a transitional period. Copyright law is clearly broken, but the balance of forces between publishers, universities, and state has not yet been able to consolidate around a new regime. Continue reading “The Copy Shop and the Cloud”

Pradeep’s Eleven

From Lawrence Liang’s Shadow Libraries chapter on India:

Shor in the City narrates the intertwined lives of three characters in Mumbai from very different class backgrounds. The film opens with one of them, Tilak, planning to kidnap a prominent author from a party. Unlike traditional kidnappers, Tilak is not after ransom but the electronic files of the author’s latest novel, which he plans to publish and sell. Tilak, it turns out, is a book pirate—and a barely literate one. His method is to strike up conversations with customers at bookstores to find out which books are popular. He then buys these books, copies them, and wholesales them to children who sell them on the streets of Mumbai.

One of the books that Tilak picks up from the bookstore is The Alchemist by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist takes on an important role in the film, serving as Tilak’s method of educating himself and as the means through which he and his newly wedded wife get to know each other better. Stumped by many of the words in the book, Tilak begins to read with an English-Hindi dictionary, educating himself while also developing a relationship to the book beyond its value to his trade. Coelho’s The Alchemist is not an accidental choice in the film. The book was widely pirated in India and remains very popular, both in mainstream bookshops as well as among pirate sellers on the street. When Coelho was alerted to the fact that The Alchemist was being sold by teenagers on the streets of India, he said that he was honored that his book was being sold in “the smallest bookstore in the world” (Bazzle 2015)…. Continue reading “Pradeep’s Eleven”

Where the State Ends, the Hamster Begins

It’s possible that the hamster reference in the subtitle of Alek Tarkowski and Mirek Filiciak’s chapter on Polish universities takes a little too long to pay off.  I accept responsibility.  The explanation is that Polish access to educational materials has been divided primarily between a state-supported research, publishing, and library ecosystem and a large, legally-contested P2P service called ‘Chomikuj’ or Hamster.  From their chapter:

Chomikuj has walked a complicated line with respect to Polish copyright law. It is a commercial service with a variety of pay models that provide users access to uploaded content—much of which, it is widely understood, is unauthorized content uploaded by users. But the service also complies with notice and takedown requirements in Polish law, removing files targeted by copyright infringement complaints (thereby allowing it to argue for “safe harbor protection” with respect to infringing behavior by users). Polish publishers have generally discounted these steps. In July 2012, members of the Polish Book Chamber brought the service to court on copyright infringement charges. By early 2017, the case had been through several rounds of motions and appeals, and is currently awaiting the outcome of a publisher-filed complaint to the European Commission. A parallel lawsuit by the Polish Filmmakers Association did result in a judgment of contributory infringement against the service, leading to a requirement that actively monitor its service for infringing materials (Dynowski and Baczykowska 2015).

Continue reading “Where the State Ends, the Hamster Begins”

South African Higher Education in Crisis

From the Shadow Libraries chapter on South Africa by Eve Gray and Laura Czerniewicz:

It is clear that the conundrum of providing learning materials in South African universities extends far beyond the materials themselves and beyond supply chains, to the complex ecologies of access in general shaped by apartheid separatism and present-day policy disconnects. Student access to resources has been the victim of vacillation between a policy tradition grounded in the “alternative curriculum” principles of anti-apartheid publishing and a developmental approach, and one grounded in a neoliberal market-oriented view of the role of higher education. Despite repeated efforts to build a national education agenda around the former, persistent economic difficulty has been a more fertile climate for imposing and rationalizing the latter view, helping provoke the current protests.

One result of the neoliberal approach is the expectation that universities should be, to an extent, self-funding, with student fees as an important part of this mix. This has been a particularly unrealistic expectation in South Africa as the system expands to serve the disproportionately poor and often underprepared majority population. Expansion of the NSFAS—the national student bursary and loan scheme—has been the primary policy response, but an inadequate one given the scale of student needs.

These problems are exacerbated by the variety of market failures in the book publishing and retailing sectors, including unaffordably high prices and chronic mismatches of supply and student demand, particularly in regard to international textbooks. In this context, many students ration their limited financial resources, making judgments about which books are most important for their studies and doing without the others. They employ a combination of strategies for accessing resources that extends well beyond the commercial market, including the sharing of resources within and across cohorts, photocopying, and relying on downloading—generally with little regard to legality. Continue reading “South African Higher Education in Crisis”

Don’t Mess with Derrida

From Evelin Heidel’s chapter on Argentine shadow libraries .

Publishers continued to bring cases against students and faculty under Article 72 and they continued to lose them. In 2007, philosophy professor Horacio Potel was sued by the Argentinean Chamber of Books (CAL) for making texts by Heidegger, Derrida, and Nietzche available on websites he had built to support his teaching—a practice he had begun in 1999. The suit was initiated at the behest of Les Éditions de Minuit, a publisher of Derrida’s work, and was promoted by the French Embassy, which invoked “the golden rule” of intellectual property (Hax 2009). (The Nietzsche component was dropped when someone pointed out that Nietzsche’s work had entered the public domain decades earlier).

The case moved forward slowly, then quickly. In Potel’s account: “I didn’t hear a word about any of this until 2009, when the police banged on my door in the middle of the night to check my address. It was a terrible situation. All the police said was: “You already know what this is about.” It was not until the next day that we were able to find out what the charges entailed. I, a philosophy professor, was charged with disseminating philosophical texts for free.” The circumstances of the case produced a significant public outcry. Under pressure, CAL decided not to pursue the case. Because this was a criminal matter, however, the withdrawal of the plaintiff did not end it. The public prosecutor decided to continue the case. Potel’s motion to dismiss was rejected, and Potel was required to post a bond of 40,000 pesos. While waiting for trial, however, the State Prosecutor reversed course and dropped the charges…

Despite the protection that judges afforded students and faculty, educational limitations and exceptions did not coalesce into a clear or consistently reproduced doctrine. None of the acquittals addressed the issue. On several occasions, judges found technicalities that allowed them to avoid sentencing students under criminal law, such as the argument that “to photocopy a photocopy is not a crime.” Although such decisions favored the students and established increasingly elaborate precedents against the use of Article 72 in such contexts, they skirted the underlying question of the role of copyright law and of university policies in enabling affordable access to educational materials. Instead, what began as more or less informal practices and forms of complicity between students and universities became more formalized and widespread. Student responsibility for organizing access to materials for their peers became a norm and ultimately a duty assumed by student associations. In some cases, the universities provide the space or other forms of subsidies to sustain this practice. The result is a de facto rather than de jure set of educational exceptions, more or less recognized and tolerated by the major institutional players.

Why the Big Shadow Libraries Are Russian

From Bodó Balázs‘ chapter on Russian shadow libraries:

In the immediate post-Soviet turmoil, access to print culture did not get any easier. Censorship officially ended, but so too did much of the state funding for the publishing sector. Mass unemployment, falling wages, and the resulting loss of discretionary income further undercut the shift toward market-based publishing models. The funding of libraries also dwindled, limiting new acquisitions (Elst 2005, 299–300). Economic constraints, in short, took the place of political ones. But in the absence of political repression, self-organizing efforts to address these constraints acquired greater scope of action. Slowly, the informal sphere began to deliver alternative modes of access to otherwise hard-to-get literary and scientific works.

Russian pirate libraries emerged from these enmeshed contexts: communist ideologies of the reading nation and mass education; the censorship of texts; the abused library system; economic hardships and dysfunctional markets; and, most importantly, the informal practices that ensured the survival of scholarship and literary traditions under hostile political and economic conditions. The prominent place of Russian pirate libraries in the larger informal media economy—and of Russian piracy of music, film, and other copyrighted work more generally—cannot be understood outside this history……

In the second half of the 1990s, the Russian Internet—RuNet—was awash in book digitization projects. With the advent of scanners, OCR technology, and the Internet, the work of digitization had eased considerably. Texts migrated from print to digital and sometimes back to print again. They circulated through different collections, which, in turn, merged, fell apart, and reformed. Digital libraries with the mission to collect and consolidate these free-floating texts sprung up by the dozens. Continue reading “Why the Big Shadow Libraries Are Russian”