Yesterday, some of the biggest textbook publishers sued Library Genesis, an illegal shadow library that publishers accused of “extensive violations of federal copyright law.”
Publishers suing include Cengage Learning, Macmillan Learning, McGraw Hill, and Pearson Education. They claimed that Library Genesis (aka Libgen) is operated by unknown individuals based outside the United States, who know that the shadow library is “one of the largest, most notorious, and far-reaching infringement operations in the world” and intentionally violate copyright laws with “absolutely no legal justification for what they do.”
According to publishers, Libgen offers free downloads for over 20,000 books that the publishers never authorized Libgen to distribute. They claimed that Libgen is “a massive piracy effort” and noted that their complaint may be updated if more infringed works are found. This vast infringement is causing publishers and authors serious financial and creative harm, publishers alleged.
“The Libgen sites deprive plaintiffs and their authors of income from their creative works, devalue the textbook market and plaintiffs’ works, and may cause plaintiffs to cease publishing certain works,” the complaint said.
This is not the first lawsuit to go after Libgen, and if history repeats, it likely won’t be the last. TorrentFreak reported that after the publisher Elsevier sued Libgen in 2015, a court ordered Libgen to shut down. But after briefly disappearing, Libgen popped back up and has been online ever since, operating in defiance of that order—as well as court orders “in several countries, including Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom,” publishers’ complaint filed yesterday said. Those countries even tried ordering “Internet service providers to block access to Libgen Sites as a result of infringement actions,” publishers said, all seemingly to no avail.
It’s hard to say if the new lawsuit will have better luck forcing Libgen offline. Publishers have asked a US district court in New York to order Libgen to pay damages that TorrentFreak estimated could exceed $30 million. They also want an order blocking Libgen from any future or ongoing infringement, an accounting and disgorgement of Libgen’s profits, the destruction of all Libgen’s copies of infringed works, and an order forcing all of Libgen’s domain names to either be transferred to publishers or deleted.
Anonymity is key to Libgen’s success
According to Similarweb data cited in the complaint, Libgen attracted “an average of over 9 million visitors per month from the United States” from March through May 2023. This includes tons of students whom publishers claimed are “bombarded with messages to use Libgen sites” on social media rather than paying full price for textbooks. This, publishers claimed, devalues the textbook market and caused a “substantial decline in revenue from sales.”
Instead of paying publishers to distribute books like a real library does, the complaint alleged, Libgen profits off pirated works by running advertisements alongside e-book downloads for things like online games and browser extensions. Sometimes Libgen’s ads, publishers claimed, “appear to be phishing attempts, which can result in users downloading a virus or other malicious program onto their computers.” Libgen also fields donations from users, reporting that it has raised $182,540 so far in 2023, the complaint noted.
Publishers said the key to Libgen’s success as a pirate website is its carefully guarded anonymity. Libgen staff, the publishers alleged, hide behind usernames like “librarian” or “bookwarrior” and rely “on proxy services that specifically conceal website operators’ identifying information.” As a business, Libgen never provides names or addresses as contact information, and when they register for new domains, they use registrars that “keep registrant information private and/or registrant proxy services.”
So far, they’ve proven seemingly impossible to unmask, but Libgen’s operators “are believed to reside outside of the United States at unknown foreign locations,” the complaint said. But while Libgen staff remains anonymous, publishers know that they also “rely on US companies as intermediaries to operate the sites,” and those companies could help disable the operation. Those companies include Cloudflare, Protocol Labs, Namecheap, and Google, which publishers claimed help to enable Libgen’s file-sharing, proxy services, domain registrations, and search engine services.
Thanks in part to these US companies, Libgen operators can “rely on the anonymity of the Internet and their overseas locations to hide their names and addresses and frustrate enforcement efforts against them,” publishers alleged.
Publishers hope their lawsuit will finally end years of Libgen’s alleged mass copyright infringement, but shadow libraries like Libgen have proven resilient through multiple attacks from the highest levels of US law enforcement. Even when the US government arrested operators of another shadow library called Z-Library last year, Z-Library returned a few months later and found a way to continue operating after the US seized its login domain.
Ars could not immediately reach publishers’ lawyers or Libgen for comment. [Update: Publishers’ lawyer Matthew Oppenheim told Ars that Libgen is a “thieves’ den” of illegal books, and “there is no question” that Libgen’s conduct is “massively illegal.” Oppenheim said that “really, the only question is why it’s been allowed to exist this long.” He also said that it’s possible that US companies may not realize that they are aiding Libgen’s infringement, but publishers hope that when they “are confronted” with the fact “that this library is massively illegal, that hopefully they will voluntarily do the right thing” and cut off Libgen.]