Understanding these book pirating communities isn’t just an academic exercise—answering these question can help inform the copyright debates in this country, particularly about how should academic work should be made available to the public. It’s an issue that won’t go away. Many of Aaron Swartz’s supporters speculated that he was downloading JSTOR articles in bulk on the principle that academic work should not be hidden behind an expensive paywall. The White House, earlier this year, said that any taxpayer-funded research should be distributed freely a year after its first publication. One aim of piracy.lab is to give publishers and university libraries information about what there’s demand for, how these book pirates have succeed at fulfilling that demand, and how more licit book-providers might learn from them.

“Basically, they’re librarians,” says Tenen. “They’re doing the same thing a library does. They’re saying, ‘Okay, we have a new digital library. How do we archive things?’ They created a distribution system…Already that’s really interesting, and I think a library could learn from it.”

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

 

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.