Serena Nath is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
One of the most popular shadow libraries, Z-library, has been essentially shut down by US authorities now. On November 3, 2022, the United States Postal Inspection Service seized the Z-library site and all of its domains, and all of their DNS servers, effectively shutting down the site. Two Russian nationals, Anton Napolsky and Valeriiaa Ermaova, were arrested and charged with several counts of criminal copyright, wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy for stealing and uploading millions of copyrighted material.
Shadow libraries are online databases of readily available content that is normally inaccessible due to paywalls or copyright controls. Typically, the content consists of textual information like books or journals. Z-library was a shadow library project that provided access to scholarly journal articles, academic texts, and general-interest books. It allowed unregistered users to download up to five books per day for free and registered users were allowed10 books per day. Its database held over 11 million books and approximately 84 million articles. Additionally, it encouraged users to upload different titles to add to the database.
Throughout its operation, many different associations have attempted to have Z-library blocked in certain countries or shut down. For example, in 2015, The Publishers Association attempted to have Z-library blocked by certain internet service providers in the United Kingdom. In the United States, Z-library’s domains were blocked in 2021 after Harvard Business Publishing issued a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice. In August 2022 in India, internet service providers were ordered by the Tis Hazari district court to block the site after a complaint of copyright infringement by Indian Publisher, Taxmann Publications Pvt Ltd.
After an ongoing investigation aided by the New-York based Authors Guild and the London-based Publishers Association, the FBI was able to arrest Napolsky and Valeriia and shut down Z-library’s network of 249 online domains.
Most of the uploaded material in a shadow library is protected by intellectual property as typically authors of the works hold copyright and publishers hold exclusive distribution rights of the works. Thus, it is illegal for this content to be uploaded and distributed on shadow library websites. However, in some countries, including Canada, copyright law allows for downloading of copyright protected material for personal, non-commercial use.
Copyright protection ensures that those who have created works are adequately compensated for their efforts, a reason that historically has driven the courts to affirm copyright over works in Canada. However, copyright protection also creates access to information issues due to rising costs of buying and licensing works. One of the main motivations behind creating shadow libraries is to more readily disseminate content, especially academic content and papers from academic journals. With the loss of Z-library, many students and teachers have experienced issues with accessing texts for school and working in academia and are now at a loss of how to access them. Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27 states that “everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”, which suggests that access to information is a universal human right. So how can this balance between private right and public interest be achieved?
Even if Z-library is unable to make a comeback, other shadow libraries will undoubtedly take its place. People from around the world have shared knowledge of other shadow libraries. For example, a group of anonymous archivists have started a free non-profit online shadow library metasearch engine called Anna’s Archive. Based on the online public response, it seems that as long as accessibility remains an issue, shadow libraries will continue to be launched.