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Z-Library and Digital Piracy

Z-library held millions of digital books and articles, all downloadable for free. In early November, multiple domain names used by Z-library were seized by the United States Government. The details of the story are still developing, although one likely contributing factor was the popularity of the Zlibrary channel on TikTok.

This is merely the latest bout in an ongoing political (and ethical) tug-of-war between freedom of information and intellectual property rights. Or, put more bluntly, between pirates and copyright holders.

Is digital piracy the same as theft? Are artists and scientists harmed? What tangible benefits does open information deliver?

Few would dispute that stealing is wrong. If someone takes a book from a bookstore, someone is deprived of that good. Moreover, the bookstore loses out on any profit associated with that good, as that book can no longer be sold to another customer. Finally, the means of stealing, such as breaking and entering and the threat of violence, can incur yet further harms to the victim.

But digital piracy does not fit this formula. If someone downloads an online version of a book without authorization, no author or bookstore has lost a copy. What exactly is being stolen? At most, if the person who pirated the book would have bought it instead, we can say that people/businesses have lost potential income. Presumably, many pirated books (and songs, and games, and movies) are acquired only because they are free. A person mildly curious about Colleen Hoover’s Reminders of Him might pirate the book, even if they would not spend money on it at a bookstore. In cases like these, there is no lost profit because the curious person would not have purchased the book had no pirated version been available.

In some cases, piracy is not only economically harmless but arguably laudable. Consider a physician in a developing economy who uses a resource like Z-library to access crucial medical information they would not otherwise be able to afford. In such cases, there is both no economic harm and an important social benefit. Furthermore, because of the nature of digital piracy, no one else is losing out on these goods.

But defensible cases of digital piracy do not automatically justify the practice. Even if digital piracy is not quite the same as stealing, it can still be ethically problematic.

Plausibly, stealing from a bookstore is bad not just because of the physical loss of property, but because of the harms associated with loss of profit. Under this account, the ethically problematic action is pirating media you would have bought instead. There may be similar harmful opportunity costs associated with pirating instead of, say, frequenting a local library. Not all loss of profit is equal though. A struggling artist and a giant publishing company are going to be harmed by lost sales differently.

So far, we have focused on whether it is wrong for an individual to pirate digital media. However, we can shift the perspective and instead consider pirating at a larger scale. The overall economic effect of pirating on industries is surprisingly complex. What portion of pirated goods would people have bought? How much does pirating actually reduce profits? Can it raise awareness of a product and paradoxically increase sales? Can it hurt in some areas (e.g., album sales) while helping in others (e.g., attendance at live shows)? Can it save people money which they then invest back in the same industry? Can it spur innovation to stay ahead of pirating? What is the human impact of reduced profits? The effects and harms (when present) of digital piracy will look different between industries, companies, stores, and even individuals.

However, there are presumably some instances where pirating is so easy and pervasive that it represents a substantial threat to certain industries and those that work in them. In these cases, a government may sensibly take action to deter pirating, such as seizing domain names to preserve a well-regulated economy, even if it has no intention of going after individual people for digital piracy.

Determining the point at which pirating represents such a significant threat may be contentious. It can also be challenging to parse whether what is being protected are scientists, artists, writers, and musicians, or merely a specific business model.

For example, scientists have long expressed frustration with the astoundingly profitable business of scientific publishing, which generally pays neither authors nor reviewers. (The academic publishing situation has become more complex since the rise of open access.)

Beyond considerations of how much harm piracy causes, what about ethical arguments supporting piracy? Might it be defensible as a social good? One function that shadow libraries such as Z-library serve is to remove art and science from the control of gatekeepers like publishing companies. For many people – whether due to personal resources or location – songs, books, movies, and science would simply be unavailable without digital piracy. Academic pirating sites such as sci-hub are widely used in countries where universities can’t afford expensive journals.

For those that believe knowledge should be widely available, this is a clear benefit of piracy and the raison d’être of sites such as a sci-hub, which boldly declares “access to information is a human right.” The view is not, in fact, so radical. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Deciding what, precisely, this right demands is more contentious. Just as one can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater, one’s liberties have to be balanced against others’ rights and tailored to circumstance.

The knowledge that one can demand is constrained by consideration of what it takes to produce it. Sometimes information is construed to mean primarily government information, as opposed to all information. So, how much information should we have access to? Does a cost interfere with a right to information? How do barriers, like cost, interact with inequality? Should this right apply to art and fiction or just information? Do business owners, artists, musicians, and writers have competing rights?

Z-library began largely as a collection of academic books and articles but ultimately grew to include all kinds of texts. While not every specific instance of piracy is ethical or harmless, on-balance the effect of making science, books, music, and movies widely available might be considered worth it. Again, the details matter and an overall evaluation depends on what is being pirated, how, and by whom. Perhaps releasing publicly funded scientific research from private gatekeepers makes sense – something which has since become U.S. policy – whereas pirating novels does not.

Finally, digital piracy can potentially be defended as a form of civil disobedience (or uncivil disobedience) against industries, laws, and policies that are believed to be unjust. Civil disobedience is a complex topic all on its own, and our evaluation of piracy as civil disobedience will undoubtedly turn on both general ethical thoughts on civil disobedience and the legitimacy of the aims of those fighting for freedom of information. However, at a minimum, civil disobedience must involve some measure of intent. Not wanting to pay for the fourth season of Westworld, while perhaps signaling dissatisfaction with the current business setup (or Westworld), is hardly a deliberate political act of disobedience meant to challenge current injustices.

Notably though, for activists with sincere aspirations of creating a world in which anyone (with internet), no matter their country or resources, can have access to the world’s incredible wealth of information, piracy is a means not a goal. Even for those opposed to digital piracy, as a political action it invites us to consider how else artists, writers, and musicians could be supported, scientific findings disseminated, and cultural goods shared.

Avoiding Complicity & the NFL: Can Piracy Be Moral?

photograph of NFL logo on TV screen

On Thursday, August 18th, the NFL announced that DeShaun Watson, quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, will be suspended for the first 11 games of the upcoming season. In addition, he will be fined $5 million dollars and must enter counseling. The suspension follows an at least 25 women credibly accusing Watson of sexual assault, leading to two grand jury cases in Texas, as well as 24 civil lawsuits.

Watson has repeatedly denied these allegations, stating in a press conference after his suspension was announced that although he believes he did nothing wrong, he is sorry to “everyone that was affected about the situation. There was a lot of people that was triggered.” Both grand juries declined to indict Watson, and at the time of writing all but one civil case have been settled.

As per the collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, the NFL Commissioner has sole authority to determine punishment. After Commissioner Roger Goodell publicly stated that the league would pursue a full season suspension and appointed former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey to hear the appeal. Yet the league, the NFLPA, and Watson’s legal team agreed on this punishment prior to Harvey hearing the appeal.

Setting this particular punishment seems cynical at best. The first game Watson will be eligible to play sees the Houston Texans, Watson’s former team, host Cleveland. This game will likely be promoted as “must-see-TV.”

Further, the NFL previously offered Watson a 12-game suspension and ten million dollar fine, which his camp rejected. Despite having all the bargaining power, the NFL apparently decided it was appropriate to reduce the punishment they initially proposed. Perhaps they sought to avoid a court case which could have drawn further attention to numerous sexual misconduct allegations against team owners.

In response to what they perceive as the NFL’s failure of moral decency, many fans are left unsure of what to do. Some Browns fans have abandoned their fandom. However, since the league is under fire, this may affect fans of any team – admittedly, supporting the NFL through my lifelong Buffalo Bills fandom feels like a source of shame.

Some fans are trying to carve out a space which lets them watch games while avoiding complicity with wrongdoing. Many highly upvoted posts in a Reddit thread discussing the suspension call for, and celebrate, pirating NFL games.

By pirating (and piracy), I mean viewing games over the internet through unlicensed means.

What does piracy accomplish? The NFL gets billions a year in revenue from TV networks. The networks are willing to pay billions because the NFL dominates ratings – in 2021, regular season games averaged over 17 million viewers, NFL games made up the entirety of the top 16 most viewed programs that year, 48 of the top 50, and 91 of the top 100. However, because pirates do not contribute to these ratings – unlicensed viewers are not counted – it’s thought that they do not help the NFL profit.

A formal version of the argument implied by these posters might look like the following. Call it the argument for piracy:

1. The NFL is morally bad.
2. One should not be complicit with morally bad organizations.
3. Pirating NFL games does not financially support the NFL.
4. Financial support is a form of complicity.
// It is not immoral to pirate NFL games.

Proponents of this argument claim that they must avoid helping the NFL profit and will pirate games to fulfill this duty. Call them “principled pirates.” The behavior of principled pirates is somewhat similar to the behavior of people engaged in boycotts – which I have previously analyzed. However, there is an important difference. Unlike the boycotter, the principled pirate still consumes the products of the organization she is condemning. And therefore the two behaviors, and their morality, are distinct.

Before considering whether the argument for piracy succeeds, we should first briefly consider the argument against piracy. Piracy is illegal, which does not immediately imply immorality. Yet piracy is commonly viewed as theft, which is usually immoral (for discussion see Beatrice Harvey’s “Can Shoplifting Be Activism“). This is because the thief takes away something that others deserve, namely, their property. Suppose you stole the cash out of my wallet. I (hopefully) earned that money through my labor or just transactions, and as a result deserve to own it. Thus, your theft violates the moral principle of desert – you take something that I deserve, despite not deserving it yourself.

The argument for piracy undercuts this analysis in two directions. First, pirates do not take something. In the case of pirating sports broadcasts, they merely access something without permission.

So piracy might be more akin to sneaking into an empty movie screening than stealing cash – the theater still has the reel, and no one’s ability to watch the movie is impeded.

Second, the argument for piracy raises questions regarding desert. The NFL, as the Watson case suggests, seems willing to engage in immoral behavior for the sake of profit. So, the money they earn is not justly deserved according to the principled pirate. Thus, we should avoid contributing to the NFL’s profits and instead ensure our money goes toward more scrupulous organizations.

Ultimately, the argument for piracy, if correct, only justifies a particular kind of fandom. Specifically, one that does not contribute financially to the NFL – no attending live games, no watching legal broadcasts of games, and no purchasing officially licensed team apparel. Further, one should avoid buying products from the NFL’s sponsors. But given their sheer number, this is a difficult task.

Yet the argument for piracy faces even greater troubles. Closely considering line 4 – that financial support is a form of complicity – makes this apparent. We might call financial support “material complicity.” This occurs when one materially contributes to a cause, action or organization. If you, say, buy a jersey, a certain amount of that money goes to the NFL. Quantifying the effect of viewership is more complicated, but theoretically operates in a similar way.

There are other forms of complicity. Suppose that I pirate a game. The next day at work, I overhear some co-workers discussing the game and join in the conversation.

By doing so, I send a message to others: despite the league’s faults, their content is worth consuming and discussing with others. In this way, I am promoting their product and contributing to their success.

Call this “social complicity.”

The argument from piracy outright ignores social complicity. Even illegal viewership, despite not benefiting the NFL directly, still promotes their interests in the long run – unless one watches the game and turns it off, never to think about it again, even piracy helps keep the sport front and center in the minds of others. And it is this primacy that makes the NFL perhaps the largest cultural juggernaut in the U.S.

Further, one might question the integrity of the principled pirate. On one hand, the principled pirate points to some moral ideal and condemns those who violate it. Simultaneously, the principled pirate is refusing to take on any burdens to promote that good with her own behavior, aside from the effort of finding streams. What she claims to value, and what her behavior indicates that she values, are at odds.

So, what motivates the argument for piracy – the moral failings of organizations like the NFL – ultimately cause the argument to fail.

Principled pirates demonstrate a lack of integrity at best and are complicit in wrongdoing at worst. If watching legally is immoral, then watching in any capacity seems wrong.

Though perhaps there is some merit to the argument for piracy. One may instead view it as a matter of harm reduction. Principled pirates are not moral saints. But complicity comes in degrees; surely the person who is both materially and socially complicit is doing something worse than someone who is merely socially complicit.

Of course, the principled pirates could do less harm overall by not watching. However, they would likely turn towards consuming other content in place of NFL games. As media ownership becomes increasingly consolidated, it is more and more difficult to find content that is not linked to some morally troubling corporate behavior. Thus, it becomes harder to avoid complicity in wrongdoing via one’s media habits; the only way to have wholly clean hands may be to stop watching, listening, and reading altogether.

Digital Textbooks in Higher Education

photograph of neon "Open" and "Textbooks" signs in window

On July 16th, one of the largest publishers of college textbooks in the world announced it will soon switch to a ‘digital-first’ publication structure that will prioritize the majority of its 1500-title catalog within a new subscription-based online portal. Once finalized, Pearson’s shift will aim to bypass the long-developed secondary market for college textbooks in a manner that has been compared to the successful capture by Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services of once-thriving DVD resales.

For years, college students have raised concerns about the exorbitantly high-priced textbook market. Over the last decade, textbook prices have risen four times faster than the rate of inflation, often costing students hundreds of dollars each semester. A report published in September 2018 indicated that more than two in five college students had chosen to skip meals at some point in the semester so that they might afford textbooks. With university costs already playing a significant role in the current presidential election cycle (several Democratic candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have made their positions on higher education a central part of their messaging), it makes sense that textbook publishers like Pearson would want to be proactive in seeking a solution.

As costs have risen, a variety of practices have already developed to try and make course materials more accessible for students, such as the purchasing of used and resold copies of older textbook versions on the secondary market – as well as the growing practice of digital piracy for assigned course materials. In recent years, various methods have been tried to curb illegal textbook downloading, from requiring digital keys to access online materials, integrating scannable “approval seals” that can be tracked by publishing houses, and working with institutions to develop ‘custom’ textbooks for particular courses. One proposal, institutional licensing, aims to offload responsibility for digital textbook distribution to universities; publishers would collect an up-front fee from the college, who would then be able to make the textbooks available to particular students. Perhaps the most successful endeavor for maintaining publisher profits thus far, however, has been the rise of the textbook rental market – though this comes with a variety of problems of its own.

On the other hand, students and activists have proposed a variety of measures to benefit students more directly, including the promotion of buy-back programs, calls for ‘open textbooks’ published under fair-use restrictions (click here for an example of one such textbook), and protective legislation like the Affordable College Textbook Act. Although Congress has repeatedly earmarked temporary funding to encourage the adoption of open textbooks, the ACTA aims to establish permanent programs and reports to track and combat high textbook prices, as well as to strengthen transparency requirements for textbook prices when students register for classes. Though it has been introduced repeatedly since 2013, the ACTA has not yet been put to a vote.

It remains to be seen, then, what Pearson’s subscription-based model will do for struggling students. In some ways, lowering up-front prices via a simple catalog subscription model may end up lowering costs for students overall (especially if such a product can be bundled or administered at an institutional level). Certainly, a digital-first structure will make it far easier for Pearson to update textbooks to new editions. Additionally, the lowered environmental costs of promoting ebook usage on a wider scale are a significant factor to weigh in this debate as well.

However, even if initial costs are lower (digital copies of textbooks are typically less expensive than printed versions), because students will have no option to resell their unwanted used textbooks at the end of their classes, overall costs for students may actually rise. Certainly, requiring subscription access to Pearson’s database will not only preclude textbook resales, but it will prevent several other tricky techniques for keeping student fees low – such as professors intentionally assigning older, less-expensive, versions of newly-updated textbooks. 

In a wider sense, Pearson’s subscription model is simply consistent with moves already familiar in the digital entertainment space, as well as for professional-based software products like Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite. As access-based consumption has become industry-standard for music labels and movie studios, it may only be a matter of time before book publishers follow suit. This will continue to bring to the fore important philosophical points about what it truly means to ‘own’ an ebook (as well as other concerns about censorship, for better and for worse), even if regular users of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix are less concerned about such murky questions than they are about simply being able to load up needed content on-demand. 

Of course, this is all without mentioning the potentially detrimental effect that ebooks have on reading comprehension – a particularly pernicious possibility for educational reading materials.

There is much that the age of the internet has changed about how we access information; it remains to be seen whether converting textbook access to a streaming-subscription model will be a Netflix-level success or not.

La Liga, EULAs, and Privacy in Public Spaces

photograph of televised soccer game

It was recently reported that Spanish soccer league La Liga took advantage of technology from users’ phones to detect bars that were streaming their games without a license. La Liga has now been fined $280,000 for disrespecting their clients privacy; they used the microphone as well as the phones’ GPS trackers to eavesdrop on the sound coming from users’ phones. Then, using sound detection tech similar to Shazam, they could identify locations where the game was being watched and check whether that location was a commercial establishment that had not paid to televise it.  

10 million downloads of La Liga’s app made for a vast amount of data. A Spanish court ruled that La Liga’s terms and conditions didn’t clearly articulate the possible use it would make of users’ phones and therefore fined the league and ruled that the app must be taken down by June 30th. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, there is some question regarding how binding EULA can be. Some lawyers cite British common law for precedent in the UK to suggest that contracts must in principle be negotiable: “End user license agreements – the rules that govern the use of software and even hardware which, overwhelmingly, has already been bought and paid for – violate that legal principle.” Contracts that lack this quality extend beyond EULAs, however. For example, parking validation tickets and signs in businesses attempting to limit the liability of management do not have room for negotiation. Instead, quick and non-negotiable contracts, such as those limiting liability of business for damage done to your car in a parking garage, are called “adhesion contracts”. Standards of reasonableness are often applied in circumstances where customers engage with businesses that attach these conditions to service. As Dan Ralls of “Ask a Lawyer” explains

“Courts will refuse to uphold adhesion contracts that include unconscionable or unreasonable terms—you can’t have anything too crazy forced on you. They also have to be conspicuous when entered into—some courts have invalidated tiny adhesion contracts on the backs of parking tickets, though others have enforced them.”

Though legal action based on end-user license agreements, or EULAs, is rare, in 2015, some precedent was set when testers for an Xboxlive game Gears of War leaked information about the game. Because this behavior violated Microsoft’s EULA, the leakers were banned from using Xbox both on- and offline.  

La Liga claims that their motive in coordinating audio and GPS data from their uses was to “protect clubs and their fans from fraud.” It purports to only attend to the relevant “sonic fingerprint” of the game audio and ignore more sensitive or private information its users’ microphones pick up.  

A central doctrine in how we imagine privacy from a legal perspective is the distinction of zones where there isn’t a presumption of privacy. When people expect that their activities or possessions will remain private, a greater burden of justification must be met for violating their privacy, by monitoring or collecting information on their activities or interfering with their property. In the US, this value is articulated in the Fourth Amendment. 

La Liga’s app was deemed unreasonable in its use of data from their users and did not make it clear through their EULA that this was a function the app would perform. As smartphones and similar technology become more prevalent, it will be interesting to note whether the use of data from microphones in public spaces remains out of bounds.