The Book Thief

This fall has been very different in our household this year – both our children have gone off to college. We miss them terribly, but my wife and I have played a lot of canasta and we have tons less dishes and laundry.

Our daughter goes to UW-Eau Claire, and the school has had an arrangement predating my years there where students rent, instead of purchase, textbooks. It’s a great deal, but you have to go to the bookstore early if you want textbooks with the least amount of notes and highlighting in them.

For my son who attends UW-Oshkosh, however, we had to pony up to buy his books. He indicated that some of the people in his dorm had downloaded digital copies of their textbooks for free. When I asked how that was possible, my son indicated that kids get them from “shadow libraries.”

While ominous, the name is also scary to me because I struggle reading things in ordinary light. In fact, a shadow library is an online database that provides access to millions of books and articles that are either out of print, hard to obtain, or only accessible through a paid subscription website. Many of these databases, which began appearing online around 2008, originated in Russia. Almost all of them operate outside of the U.S.

These websites are also known as “pirate libraries” because they typically infringe on copyrighted work without compensating the copyright holder. A 2017 study by Nielsen and Digimarc found that pirated books were “depressing legitimate book sales by as much as 14%.”

In response, governments around the globe have targeted shadow libraries. A year ago, the FBI seized several websites associated with Z-Library, a popular shadow library, and charged two Russian nationals with criminal copyright infringement, wire fraud, and money laundering. Courts in France and India also ordered internet service providers to block Z-Library. Unfortunately, almost immediately after one of the site’s main online locations was shut down, mirror sites started popping up.

Earlier this month, though, a group of major textbook publishers took matters into their own hands. Macmillan Learning, McGraw Hill, Cengage and Pearson Education, sued Library Genesis, another shadow library, in federal court in Manhattan for what they described as copyright infringement on a “staggering” scale. Like Z-Library, LibGen offers free digital copies of books, journal articles and other materials.

The plaintiffs allege Library Genesis illegally distributed more than 20,000 of their textbooks and offers more than 6 million files from a “diverse cross-section of the publishing industry.” The publishers asked the court for an unspecified amount of monetary damages and an order to cancel or transfer to them the group of domain names housing the databases owned by Library Genesis, which are collectively also known as LibGen.

Matt Oppenheim, who represents the plaintiffs, and has quite a way with words himself, calls LibGen a “thieves’ den of stolen books” that harms creators and publishers. His complaint asserts that LibGen competes directly with the publishers, and, as my son confirmed, that students are “bombarded” with encouragement from social media and their classmates to use LibGen instead of buying legitimate textbooks.

“And all too many use LibGen, perhaps not realizing the illegal nature of the sites,” the lawsuit said. The publishers claim LibGen relies on “the anonymity of the internet and their overseas locations to hide their names and addresses and frustrate enforcement efforts.”

My son’s girlfriend is majoring in psychology. She went into her school’s library and asked for a book on Pavlov’s dog and Shrodinger’s Cat. Apparently, the librarian said, “That rings a bell, but I don’t know if it’s here or not.”

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Reg P. Wydeven

Elder Law and Estate Planning Attorney at McCarty Law LLP
Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps from a young age, Reg’s practice primarily consists of advising individuals on estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. As Reg represents clients in matters like guardianship proceedings and long-term care admissions, he feels grateful to be able to offer families thorough legal help in their time of need.

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