File Sharing and the Free Public Library

By Richard Menta 12/17/08

I frequently turn to precedents in the offline world when I struggle with the legitimacy of activities in the online world. Take something that is totally acceptable for years in the tactile world, replicate it as exact as possible in cyberspace and see if it works. Take for example, the public library.

It's safe to say that the concept of the free public library is one that is embraced universally. Its existence is based on the fervent belief that a community with free, open access to information is a stronger one and a better one. Local and regional communities build libraries to serve the average family. Universities build libraries to serve the academic community. Even private libraries serve a communal purpose. For example, corporations build libraries to aid workers on the job with the office serving a community of employees.

How each of these communities builds their library is fairly straightforward. Books, films, music, documents, maps, video games and other ephemera are acquired and assembled into a robust collection. The majority of this content is under copyright, yet every library that purchases this content does so with the clear intent that it will be made available for free access to many. This includes not only material for research, but material for entertainment. At a library you can access present best sellers, the latest DVDs and the hottest albums. This is all legal as libraries fall under fair use within copyright law.

If a grass-roots constituency decides to build a local library all they need to do is raise money, acquire a collection of donated and purchased material and organize it all within a structure that can effectively distribute its content to the populace. The founders do not need to get special government permission or sign a licensing arrangement with content creators. They just need to build it - in the physical world.

And that brings us to the online world, the most efficient distribution system yet devised. If a physical community is allowed to freely build a library that is protected by convention, why should an online community be treated any different?

Let's take this a step farther, could not the activity of file sharing in essence be a form of free public library? Please, bear with me for a moment on this. Is it not built by a community of people who have assembled content and applied it with the intent of free dissemination to the populace at large? It's an interesting question, because even if you feel that file sharing should in no way qualify for library status that's what in all practicality it has become.

There are plenty of differences between the offline and online worlds, between libraries and Limewire. Libraries lend copies, file sharers make them (thought - is there that much of a difference considering the library allows you to check out most material ad infinitum? Maybe). More important, who gets to decide which differences matter and when an activity should be allowed for one, but forbidden for the other?

Consciously, the efforts of file traders are not committed with altruism in mind, but, in spirit, we have all been conditioned to share information with others. We share not just knowledge, but the enjoyment we receive from sports, music, TV and film. Are we not unconsciously transferring our offline habits to the online environment when we trade files?

The Internet thrives on this spirit, specifically because by design it was built as a medium for sharing, not commerce. For example, the legions of developers who feed open-source endeavors online are not motivated by pay, but by the sense that their contributions benefit a shared good. True, most of the top file sharing applications were created with the hope of a commercial payoff at the end, but it is the non-commercial actions of their users that define them. The file sharing network may be the conduit, but it is not the repository. Users are the librarians here, not BitTorrent.

So, does sharing amount to a public good in the online world just because it does in the offline world? The complexities of such an argument run deep and the answers are conflict-ridden. To add to the difficulty corporate copyright holders feel it is not in their best interest to indulge in messy discussions over the grey areas of copyright law in the Internet age. They prefer to express a simple black and white vision, one that includes calling every new innovation a crime as a first step to placing controls on them. The idea of allowing the concept of the free public library to move online horrifies them and it has spurred lawsuits against all its forms including Google Books and YouTube.

In 1999 I called the original Napster the largest grass roots effort this world had yet seen. It was then a community of hundreds-of-thousands of individuals who took the music that they purchased and offered it up others to share and enjoy. As I said earlier, I usually turn to precedents in the offline world when I struggle with the legitimacy of activities in the online world and this has helped me find some answers. If you truly feel that the actions of file sharers are criminal then you need to explain to me again why the actions of the town librarian are not.

It's not an argument for the feint-of-heart. It is one that needs to be intelligently dissected and applied. But the conclusions of such discourse may not be convenient for the big businesses who press records and ship film. That's why they will dismiss any such dialogue before it starts.


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