Scanners, collectors and aggregators. On the ‘underground movement’ of (pirated) theory text sharing by Janneke Adema, posted on Open Reflections, September 20, 2009
“But as I say, let’s play a game of science fiction and imagine for a moment: what would it be like if it were possible to have an academic equivalent to the peer-to-peer file sharing practices associated with Napster, eMule, and BitTorrent, something dealing with written texts rather than music? What would the consequences be for the way in which scholarly research is conceived, communicated, acquired, exchanged, practiced, and understood?” — Gary Hall – Digitize this book! (2008)
Ubu web was founded in 1996 by poet Kenneth Goldsmith and has developed from ‘a repository for visual, concrete and (later) sound poetry, to a site that ‘embraced all forms of the avant-garde and beyond. Its parameters continue to expand in all directions.’ As Wikipedia states, Ubu is non-commercial and operates on a gift economy. All the same – by forming an amazing resource and repository for the avant-garde movement, and by offering and hosting these works on its platform, Ubu is violating copyright laws. As they state however: ‘should something return to print, we will remove it from our site immediately. Also, should an artist find their material posted on UbuWeb without permission and wants it removed, please let us know. However, most of the time, we find artists are thrilled to find their work cared for and displayed in a sympathetic context. As always, we welcome more work from existing artists on site.’
Where in the more affluent and popular media realms of block buster movies and pop music the Piratebay and other download sites (or p2p networks) like Mininova are being sued and charged with copyright infringement, the major powers to be seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to Ubu and many other resource sites online that offer digital versions of hard-to-get-by materials ranging from books to documentaries.
This is and has not always been the case: in 2002 Sebastian Lütgert from Berlin/New York was sued by the “Hamburger Stiftung zur Förderung von Wissenschaft und Kultur” for putting online two downloadable texts from Theodor W. Adorno on his website textz.com, an underground archive for Literature. According to this Indymedia interview with Lütgert, textz.com was referred to as ‘the Napster for books’ offering about 700 titles, focusing on, as Lütgert states ‘Theorie, Romane, Science-Fiction, Situationisten, Kino, Franzosen, Douglas Adams, Kritische Theorie, Netzkritik usw’.
The interview becomes even more interesting when Lütgert remarks that one can still easily download both Adorno texts without much ado if one wants to. This leads to the bigger question of the real reasons underlying the charge against textz.com; why was textz.com sued? As Lütgert says in the interview: “Das kann man sowieso [when referring to the still available Adorno texts]. Aber es gibt schon lange einen klaren Unterschied zwischen offener Verfügbarkeit und dem Untergrund. Man kann die freie Verbreitung von Inhalten nicht unterbinden, aber man scheint verhindern zu wollen dass dies allzu offen und selbstverständlich geschieht. Das ist es was sie stört.”
But how can something be truly underground in an online environment whilst still trying to spread or disseminate texts as widely as possible? This seems to be the paradox of many – not quite legal and/or copyright protected – resource sharing and collecting communities and platforms nowadays. However, multiple scenario’s are available to evade this dilemma: by being frankly open about the ‘status’ of the content on offer, as Ubu does, or by using little ‘tricks’ like an easy website registration, classifying oneself as a reading group, or by relieving oneself from responsibility by stating that one is only aggregating sources from elsewhere (linking) and not hosting the content on its own website or blog. One can also state the offered texts or multimedia files form a special issue or collection of resources, emphasizing their educational and not-for-profit value.
Most of the ‘underground’ text and content sharing communities seem to follow the concept of (the inevitability of) ‘information wants to be free’, especially on the Internet. As Lütgert States: “Und vor allem sind die über Walter Benjamin nicht im Bilde, der das gleiche Problem der Reproduzierbarkeit von Werken aller Art schon zu Beginn des letzten Jahrhunderts vor sich hatte und erkannt hat: die Massen haben das Recht, sich das alles wieder anzueignen. Sie haben das Recht zu kopieren, und das Recht, kopiert zu werden. Jedenfalls ist das eine ganz schön ungemütliche Situation, dass dessen Nachlass jetzt von solch einem Bürokraten verwaltet wird. A: Glaubst Du es ist überhaupt legitim intellektuellen Inhalt zu “besitzen”? Oder Eigentümer davon zu sein? S: Es ist *unmöglich*. “Geistiges” Irgendwas verbreitet sich immer weiter. Reemtsmas Vorfahren wären nie von den Bäumen runtergekommen oder aus dem Morast rausgekrochen, wenn sich “geistiges” Irgendwas nicht verbreitet hätte.”
What seems to be increasingly obvious, as the interview also states, is that one can find virtually all Ebooks and texts one needs via p2p networks and other file sharing community’s (the true Darknet in a way) – more and more people are offering (and asking for!) selections of texts and books (including the ones by Adorno) on openly available websites and blogs, or they are scanning them and offering them for (educational) use on their domains. Although the Internet is mostly known for the pirating and dissemination of pirated movies and music, copyright protected textual content has (of course) always been spread too. But with the rise of ‘born digital’ text content, and with the help of massive digitization efforts like Google Books (and accompanying Google Books download tools) accompanied by the appearance of better (and cheaper) scanning equipment, the movement of ‘openly’ spreading (pirated) texts (whether or not focusing on education and ‘fair use’) seems to be growing fast.
The direct harm (to both the producers and their publishers) of the free online availability of (in copyright) texts is also maybe less clear than for instance with music and films. Many feel texts and books will still be preferred to be read in print, making the online and free availability of text nothing more than a marketing tool for the sales of the printed version. Once discovered, those truly interested will find and buy the print book. Also more than with music and film, it is felt essential to share information, as a cultural good and right, to prevent censorship and to improve society.
This is one of the reasons the Open Access movement for scientific research has been initiated. But where the amount of people and institutions supportive of this movement is gradually growing (especially where it concerns articles and journals in the Sciences), the spread concerning Open Access (or even digital availability) of monographs in the Humanities and Social Sciences (of which the majority of the resources on offer in the underground text sharing communities consists) has only just started.
This has lead to a situation in which some have decided that change is not coming fast enough. Instead of waiting for this utopian Open Access future to come gradually about, they are actively spreading, copying, scanning and pirating scholarly texts/monographs online. Although many times accompanied by lengthy disclaimers about why they are violating copyright (to make the content more widely accessible for one), many state they will take down the content if asked. Following the copyleft movement, what has in a way thus arisen is a more ‘progressive’ or radical branch of the Open Access movement. The people who spread these texts deem it inevitable they will be online eventually, they are just speeding up the process. As Lütgert states: ‘The desire of an increasingly larger section of the population to 100-percent of information is irreversible. The only way there can be slowed down in the worst case, but not be stopped.
Still we have not yet answered the question of why publishers (and their pirated authors) are not more upset about these kinds of websites and platforms. It is not a simple question of them not being aware that these kind of textual disseminations are occurring. As mentioned before, the harm to producers (scholars) and their publishers (in Humanities and Social Sciences mainly Not-For-Profit University Presses) is less clear. First of all, their main customers are libraries (compare this to the software business model: free for the consumer, companies pay), who are still buying the legal content and mostly follow the policy of buying either print or both print and ebook, so there are no lost sales there for the publishers. Next to that it is not certain that the piracy is harming sales. Unlike in literary publishing, the authors (academics) are already paid and do not loose money (very little maybe in royalties) from the online availability. Perhaps some publishers also see the Open Access movement as something inevitably growing and they thus don’t see the urge to step up or organize a collaborative effort against scholarly text piracy (where most of the presses also lack the scale to initiate this). Whereas there has been some more upsurge and worries about textbook piracy (since this is of course the area where individual consumers – students – do directly buy the material) and websites like Scribd, this mostly has to do with the fact that these kind of platforms also host non-scholarly content and actively promote the uploading of texts (where many of the text ‘sharing’ platforms merely offer downloading facilities). In the case of Scribd the size of the platform (or the amount of content available on the platform) also has caused concerns and much media coverage.
All of this gives a lot of potential power to text sharing communities, and I guess they know this. Only authors might be directly upset (especially famous ones gathering a lot of royalties on their work) or in the case of Lütgert, their beneficiaries, who still do see a lot of money coming directly from individual customers.
Still, it is not only the lack of fear of possible retaliations that is feeding the upsurge of text sharing communities. There is a strong ideological commitment to the inherent good of these developments, and a moral and political strive towards institutional and societal change when it comes to knowledge production and dissemination.
As Adrian Johns states in his article Piracy as a business force, ‘today’s pirate philosophy is a moral philosophy through and through’. As Jonas Anderson states, the idea of piracy has mostly lost its negative connotations in these communities and is seen as a positive development, where these movements ‘have begun to appear less as a reactive force (i.e. ‘breaking the rules’) and more as a proactive one (‘setting the rules’). Rather than complain about the conservatism of established forms of distribution they simply create new, alternative ones.’ Although Anderson states this kind of activism is mostly occasional, it can be seen expressed clearly in the texts accompanying the text sharing sites and blogs. However, copyright is perhaps so much an issue on most of these sites (where it is on some of them), as it is something that seems to be simply ignored for the larger good of aggregating and sharing resources on the web. As is stated clearly for instance in an interview with Sean Dockray, who maintains AAAARG:
“The project wasn’t about criticizing institutions, copyright, authority, and so on. It was simply about sharing knowledge. This wasn’t as general as it sounds; I mean literally the sharing of knowledge between various individuals and groups that I was in correspondence with at the time but who weren’t necessarily in correspondence with each other.”
Back to Lütgert. The files from textz.com have been saved and are still accessible via The Internet Archive Wayback Machine. In the case of textz.com, these files contain ’typed out text’, so no scanned contents or PDF’s. Textz.com (or better said its shadow or mirror) offers an amazing collection of texts, including artists statements/manifestos and screenplays from for instance David Lynch.
The text sharing community has evolved and now knows many players. Two other large members in this kind of ‘pirate theory base network’ (although – and I have to make that clear! – they offer many (and even mostly) legal and out of copyright texts), still active today, are Monoskop/Burundi and AAAARG.ORG. These kinds of platforms all seem to disseminate (often even on a titular level) similar content, focusing mostly on Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory, Cultural Studies and Literary Theory, The Frankfurter Schule, Sociology/Social Theory, Psychology, Anthropology and Ethnography, Media Art and Studies, Music Theory, and critical and avant-garde writers like Kafka, Beckett, Burroughs, Joyce, Baudrillard, etc.etc.
Monoskop is, as they state, a collaborative wiki research on the social history of media art or a ‘living archive of writings on art, culture and media technology’. At the sitemap of their log, or under the categories section, you can browse their resources on genre: book, journal, e-zine, report, pamphlet etc. As I found here, Burundi originated in 2003 as a (Slovakian) media lab working between the arts, science and technologies, which spread out to a European city based cultural network; They even functioned as a press, publishing the Anthology of New Media Literature (in Slovak) in 2006, and they hosted media events and curated festivals. It dissolved in June 2005 although the Monoskop research wiki on media art, has continued to run since the dissolving of Burundi.
As is stated on their website, AAAARG is a conversation platform, or alternatively, a school, reading group or journal, maintained by Los Angeles artist Sean Dockray. In the true spirit of Critical Theory, its aim is to ‘develop critical discourse outside of an institutional framework’. Or even more beautiful said, it operates in the spaces in between: ‘But rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them.’ To be able to access the texts and resources that are being ‘discussed’ at AAAARG, you need to register, after which you will be able to browse the library. From this library, you can download resources, but you can also upload content. You can subscribe to their feed (RSS/XML) and like Monoskop, AAAARG.org also maintains a Twitter account on which updates are posted. The most interesting part though is the ‘extra’ functions the platform offers: after you have made an account, you can make your own collections, aggregations or issues out of the texts in the library or the texts you add. This offers an alternative (thematically ordered) way into the texts archived on the site. You also have the possibility to make comments or start a discussion on the texts. See for instance their elaborate discussion lists. The AAAARG community thus serves both as a sharing and feedback community and in this way operates in a true p2p fashion, in a way like p2p seemed originally intended. The difference being that AAAARG is not based on a distributed network of computers, but is based on one platform, to which registered users are able to upload a file (which is not the case on Monoskop for instance – only downloading here).
Via mercurunionhall, I found the image underneath which depicts AAAARG.ORG’s article index organized as a visual map, showing the connections between the different texts. This map was created and posted by AAAARG user john, according to mercurunionhall.
Where AAAArg.org focuses again on the text itself – typed out versions of books – Monoskop works with more modern versions of textual distribution: scanned versions or full ebooks/pdf’s with all the possibilities they offer, taking a lot of content from Google books or (Open Access) publishers’ websites. Monoskop also links back to the publishers’ websites or Google Books, for information about the books or texts (which again proves that the publishers should know about their activities). To download the text however, Monoskop links to Sharebee, keeping the actual text and the real downloading activity away from its platform.
Another part of the text sharing content consists of platforms offering documentaries and lectures (so multi-media content) online. One example of the last is the Discourse Notebook Archive, which describes itself as an effort which has as its main goal ‘to make available lectures in contemporary continental philosophy’ and is maintained by Todd Kesselman, a PhD Student at The New School for Social Research. Here you can find lectures from Badiou Kristeva and Zizek (both audio and video) and lectures aggregated from the European Graduate School. Kesselman also links to resources on the web dealing with contemporary continental philosophy.
Society of Control is a website maintained by Stephan Dillemuth, an artist living and working in Munich, Germany, offering amongst others an overview of his work and scientific research. According to this interview conducted by Kristian Ø Dahl and Marit Flåtter his work is a response to the increased influence of the neo-liberal world order on education, creating a culture industry that is more than often driven by commercial interests. He asks the question ‘How can dissidence grow in the blind spots of the ‘society of control’ and articulate itself?’ His website, the Society of Control is, as he states, ‘an independent organization whose profits are entirely devoted to research into truth and meaning.’
Society of Control has a library section which contains works from some of the biggest thinkers of the twentieth century: Baudrillard, Adorno, Debord, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Habermas, Sloterdijk und so weiter, and so much more, a lot in German, and all ‘typed out’ texts. The library section offers a direct search function, a category function and a a-z browse function. Dillemuth states that he offers this material under fair use, focusing on not for profit, freedom of information and the maintenance of freedom of speech and information and making information accessible to all:
“The Societyofcontrol website site contains information gathered from many different sources. We see the internet as public domain necessary for the free flow and exchange of information. However, some of these materials contained in this site maybe claimed to be copyrighted by various unknown persons. They will be removed at the copyright holder’s request within a reasonable period of time upon receipt of such a request at the email address below. It is not the intent of the Societyofcontrol to have violated or infringed upon any copyrights.”
Important in this respect is that he put the responsibility of reading/using/downloading the texts on his site with the viewers, and not with himself: “Anyone reading or looking at copyright material from this site does so at his/her own peril, we disclaim any participation or liability in such actions.”
Fark Yaraları = Scars of Différance and Multitude of blogs are maintained by the same author, Renc-u-ana, a philosophy and sociology student from Istanbul. The first is his personal blog (with also many links to downloadable texts), focusing on ‘creating an e-library for a Heideggerian philosophy and Bourdieuan sociology’ on which he writes ‘market-created inequalities must be overthrown in order to close knowledge gap.’ The second site has a clear aggregating function with the aim ‘to give united feedback for e-book publishing sites so tha tracing and finding may become easier.’ And a call for similar blogs or websites offering free ebook content. The blog is accompanied by a nice picture of a woman warning to keep quiet, very paradoxically appropriate to the context. Here again, a statement from the host on possible copyright infringement: ‘None of the PDFs are my own productions. I’ve collected them from web (e-mule, avax, libreremo, socialist bros, cross-x, gigapedia..) What I did was thematizing.’ The same goes for pdflibrary (which seems to be from the same author), offering texts from Derrida, Benjamin, Deleuze and the likes: None of the PDFs you find here are productions of this blog. They are collected from different places i the web (e-mule, avax, libreremo, all socialist bros, cross-x, …). The only work done here is thematizing and tagging.’
Our student from Istanbul lists many text sharing sites on Multitude of blogs, including Inishark (amongst others Badiou, Zizek and Derrida), Revelation (a lot of history and bible study), Museum of accidents (many resources relating to again, critical theory, political theory and continental philhosophy) and Makeworlds (initiated from the make world festival 2001). Mariborchan is mainly a Zizek resource site (also Badiou and Lacan) and offers next to ebooks also video and audio (lectures and documentaries) and text files, all via links to file sharing platforms.
What is clear is that the text sharing network described above (I am sure there are many more related to other fields and subjects) is also formed and maintained by the fact that the blogs and resource sites link to each other in their blog rolls, which is what in the end makes up the network of text sharing, only enhanced by RSS feeds and Twitter accounts, holding together direct communication streams with the rest of the community. That there has not been one major platform or aggregation site linking them together and uploading all the texts is logical if we take into account the text sharing history described before and this can thus be seen as a clear tactic: it is fear, fear for what happened to textz.com and fear for the issue of scale and fear of no longer operating at the borders, on the outside or at the fringes. Because a larger scale means they might really get noticed. The idea of secrecy and exclusivity which makes for the idea of the underground is very practically combined with the idea that in this way the texts are available in a multitude of places and can thus not be withdrawn or disappear so easily.
This is the paradox of the underground: staying small means not being noticed (widely), but will mean being able to exist for probably an extended period of time. Becoming (too) big will mean reaching more people and spreading the texts further into society, however it will also probably mean being noticed as a treat, as a ‘network of text-piracy’. The true strategy is to retain this balance of openly dispersed subversivity.
Update 25 November 2005: Another interesting resource site came to my attention recently: Bedeutung, a philosophical and artistic initiative consisting of three projects: Bedeutung Magazine, Bedeutung Collective and Bedeutung Blog, hosts a library section which links to freely downloadable online e-books, articles, audio recordings and videos.