Why Rick Falkvinge’s rambles about public libraries don’t make sense

On Torrentfreak a few days ago Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, mused upon the relationship between libraries and file-sharing. He claims that you can’t support public libraries while being opposed to file-sharing, by which he appears to mean copyright infringement. It’s one of those frustrating reads in which the author gleefully tears nuance from the issue until he is left with a strawman that can be batted down with a single puff of logic.

Frankly I expect better from the successful founder of a political movement.

Just because I find this really annoying let’s unpack his argument and take a look at it.

Libraries and file-sharing do not differ in principle. The purpose of libraries was – is – to make culture and knowledge available to as many as possible, as efficiently as possible, for free – simply because of the greater socioeconomic benefit of an educated and cultural populace. How is this not file-sharing?

He sets things up by explaining that public libraries and file-sharing accomplish exactly the same thing: the distribution of copyrighted material for public benefit. It just happens that one does it more effectively than the other. In doing so he is intentionally confusing the means with the end.

He sees that libraries and file-sharing both result in copyrighted materials being consumed by the public at no charge. In neither case is the author of the work compensated for that particular consumption. This happens to be true—but it’s not the important part.

The aim of libraries is enlightening and educating our community. It is certainly not the job of the library to distribute copyrighted material “as efficiently as possible.” Although there is clear educational value in allowing libraries to do what they do, that doesn’t guarantee that doing more of that particular thing will result in a better educated community. For that we would also need to discuss what kind of copyrighted material it is, to whom we’re giving it, and on what terms.

The aim of file-sharing, however, is to acquire entertainment without spending any of your money. Sure, a small fraction of participants use it for sharing textbooks that they might otherwise be unable to afford. There the similarities end. Imagine putting Game of Thrones into a digital public library, letting everybody stream it from the library simultaneously and describing that as good for public culture. It would be absurd.

This is a fundamental qualitative difference that Falkvinge would like us to ignore: libraries mostly stock content that enriches and educates. File-sharing is a free-for-all. When people can choose between flashy entertainment or a life-changing philosophical ebook, they’re probably going to pick the flashy entertainment. For the purposes of libraries not all copyrighted content is equal.

So we can observe that public libraries and file-sharing differ in scale and efficiency – and only in scale and efficiency. Quite a bit, even. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. I sometimes hear people trying to defend the copyright monopoly by saying that file-sharing makes public libraries too efficient, and therefore cannot be allowed.

I can’t do anything but shake my head at that.

Having established (at least in his own mind) that libraries are simply a less efficient version of bittorrent, he attempts to shut down the idea that quantity of sharing matters.

Of course it matters: if too many people get the copyrighted material for free then creators will not be able to create. If most consumers are paying for it there is money to be made and creators will prosper and make more things. This is copyright 101. You can’t just throw it out by shaking your head.

You can make it sound bad by describing libraries as “inefficient”. As discussed above, distributing copyrighted material simply is not their raison d’être.

Artificial scarcity is a feature of libraries, not an inefficiency. You don’t need any money to borrow a book from a library today. That’s great. But you only get to have it for a few weeks and you might have to wait a while if it’s a popular one. That’s kind of annoying but it fits well with copyright. The person who needs the book and is willing to put in a small bit of effort gets to read it. People who want their own copy or to have it immediately will buy it. It allows poor people to read without having a big impact on the ordinary functioning of copyright. This is excellent.

What does that mean for the future? It’s a bit trickier. Suppose a public library gets an educational ebook. Technology is moving along and they would like to distribute it via their website. Should they just put it on the website for anybody to find and download? I think that would be foolish. In this day and age anybody who wanted to avoid paying for that book would very easily download it from this library and copyright would be undermined.

Suppose then people had to take turns to withdraw the digital copies. It would be easy to copy, but that’s true of all digital content. I believe that redistributing digital content from the library should continue to be illegal because it will mess up copyright. Those who really need it can get it by waiting their turn or by buying it for themselves.

In Falkvinge’s mind, this is a less efficient library. To me it’s a library doing its job: helping enlighten and educate the community (without destroying the commercial business of writing books in the process). We didn’t need that bit in parentheses before; now we do.

In a quote from the 1850s that went past my information flow in February 2009, I noted that a publisher of the time had argued, paraphrased, that “you cannot possibly allow people to read books for free! If you pass this law, no author will ever make a penny from books again! Not a single more book will be written if you pass this law!”

Yes indeed, even in olden times people tried to protect their industry with hyperbole. Libraries have done good work without becoming a monopoly on the book-reading industry. Let’s not change that now.

We have built the most amazing public library ever created. All of humanity is able to access the collective culture and knowledge of all of humanity, twenty-four by seven, as well as contribute to that collective pool.

I just had a look at the top 100 torrents on The Pirate Bay. Ninety-eight of them were movies and TV shows. The other two were different cracked version of Grand Theft Auto V. If this is the collective culture and knowledge of all humanity we’re in great trouble indeed.