A group of publishers have sued what is known as a “shadow library,” what the publishers describe as “just a ruse for a massive piracy effort.” The defendant is Library Genesis, better known for short as “Libgen,” the plaintiffs Cengage, Freeman & Worth, Macmillan, and McGraw Hill. Plaintiffs publish academic works and textbooks that are used in higher education. Defendant steals them and gives digital copies away for free without paying the publishers anything, despite the fact that the works are copyrighted.
The publishers summed up their claim in their pleadings this way: “Defendants operate one of the largest, most notorious, and far-reaching infringement operations in the world. 'Library Genesis,' or 'Libgen' for short, is a group of pirate websites through which a vast array of written material is illegally copied and distributed online without any authorization, and with no remuneration to copyright holders. Operating as an illegal “shadow library,” Libgen enables users to download, for free, fiction and non-fiction books (among other types of works), including educational textbooks, instead of buying or renting lawful copies or checking them out from a legitimate library. Defendants have absolutely no legal justification for what they do and operate in complete and knowing defiance of the rule of law.”
The publishers said the scale of their “infringement is staggering.” They claimed that Libgen maintains a collection of 6 million files of illegal copies of copyrighted works, over 20,000 owned by the four plaintiffs. They give them away to anyone with internet access despite having no permission or right to do so. There is no question the defendants know what they are doing is illegal. They hide their identities. The plaintiffs don't know who they are nor even where they are located, though they believe they operate from a foreign country to America. Perhaps the fact that LibGen allows you to read their site in English or Russian is an indication. They use pseudonyms such as “bookwarrior” and “librarian.” They constantly change their domain names (website urls) so shutting down one just leads to the creation of another.
If there is any question whether people are taking advantage of the unauthorized copyrighted works, the defendants cited data from similarweb.com (that tracks this sort of data) which estimates that the various Libgen sites average over 9 million visits from the U.S. each month. They raise money from donations and advertisements. Advertisements, they said, come from those offering products such as browser extensions and games, along with some they said appear to be “phishing attempts.” Donations are accepted, but only in bitcoin and another untraceable cryptocurrency. One Libgen site, they added, claimed to have received $182,540 in donations since January 1, 2023.
Libgen is not the first nor only such pirate service. Others that have been sued and defeated in court include Sci-Hub and Z-library. Two Russians have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice over Z-library. Both of those sites are still in operation. LibGen was sued in New York in 2017 by Elsevier, who won a default judgment as the defendant never appeared in court. They have never recovered any damages and LibGen continues to operate without consequence.
Textbooks tend to be extremely expensive and challenging for students on a limited budget. Perhaps that's why they turn to services that are obviously illegal. There is a need to bring down these costs. Nevertheless, stealing is stealing and copyright infringement is theft of intellectual property. Besides which, producing these texts is not cheap. Expert authors expect to be well-compensated, but most textbooks are hardly bestsellers. Perhaps universities can play a role through cooperative buying and negotiating or not introducing new texts unless major changes are needed to older editions. The theft of music through file sharing we saw a couple years ago seems to have been mostly resolved through streaming services. Someone needs to find a similar type of resolution for textbooks.