Can you defend public libraries and oppose file sharing?

Falkvinge doesn’t seem to understand how libraries work.

filesThe always entertaining Alan David Doane wrote on Facebook this month: “I’m curious what my favourite librarian, Roger Green, makes of this argument.” Rick Falkvinge stated that one cannot defend public libraries and oppose file-sharing because “they are one and the same phenomenon. One is just vastly more efficient.”

I’ll have a caveat that I shared this with several librarians, and none of them were 100% sure exactly what he meant by file sharing. I’m assuming he’s talking bit torrent. The exact model of what this theoretically might look like in a library setting is a little fuzzy to me.

Still, if I am understanding the argument correctly, the real problem is that he’s wrong, in three specific ways, one of philosophy, and two on the facts.


Falkvinge’s implication through the piece is that “efficiency” is an incontrovertible good; this is incorrect. Generally, checks and balances have an important place in processes, especially when it comes to government. The argument in favor of the renewal of aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act stems largely on the fact that it would be more “efficient” to have all that phone metadata, for which the government can select those presumed terrorists, rather than doing this process more on a case-by-case basis. I’m rooting for inefficiency, thank you.

I’m a Presbyterian, and they are, most likely, some of the most inefficient people on the planet. When they make a decision, it’s been hashed out within an inch of its life. But all sides know their voices have been heard.


More to the point, though, Falkvinge doesn’t seem to understand how libraries work. Libraries BUY books – one of their primary expenditures – and then LOAN them to other people, exposing them to people who might not have been aware of them. Moreover, authors receive MONEY because libraries purchase works, and an individual copy is generally read, one person at a time (SO inefficient!), by many people.

Not incidentally, in the main, it costs librarians more money to have digital copies of books than print copies. Indeed, in many of the contracts that libraries have with electronic publishers, the library doesn’t even OWN the book. So it can’t sell it, like it can for a book it no longer needs. The library is essentially leasing e-books until a certain date, or until a couple dozen readers check it out.


File sharing is essentially a manufacturing process, reproducing products that NO ONE is purchasing. NO money is going into the pockets of the creators. Borrowing from my friend Steve Bissette, file sharing “is thievery and impoverishes creators/authors by reproducing work sans payment. There is no ‘loan’ in file sharing: it is a transfer of property, in a material form (here, place this file on YOUR computer). It proliferates [and, I would add, encourages] copying sans payment – VERY different from public libraries.”

As for the panicked 1850s book publishers Falkvinge mentioned: one can take almost ANY technology or innovation, and there will be arguments that the old way was going to be supplanted by the new. Still, showing movies on television did not eliminate movie theaters in the 1950s. It made movie makers more likely to make films that could not be experienced at home. I used to make mixed tapes, recording an assemblage of songs on cassette tape, and the music industry swore it’d ruin them, but it didn’t. (You can argue amongst yourselves what DID wreck the music industry, and threaten theatrical movies, but it wasn’t your local library.)

Libraries are good

Moreover, the article seems to suggest that the ONLY thing libraries DO is loan books and other material. The library is so much more. The staff answer reference questions, provide guidance for computer users, assist with Internet access to those who do not have it – oh, just read this article. There are plenty of reasons to support your public library.

Librarians are, by training and practice, sensitive to issues of copyright and fair use. Such restraint does not seem to be in the DNA of file sharers, who seem to believe more is always better.

It’s likely that your local library is on the front lines against government surveillance. I cannot speak to whether file sharers are in the fight or not.

I think the argument that file sharing is anything like what libraries do is BOGUS.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

7 thoughts on “Can you defend public libraries and oppose file sharing?”

  1. I think you’re right, Roger, and also that Falkvinge frankly doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. However, it’s also true that copyright law itself needs major rewriting to rebalance the scales in the public interest, and less in the interest of media conglomerates. Copyright was NEVER intended to lock intellectual and cultural goods in corporations’ vaults for perpetuity, but rather to protect the creator in his/her lifetime, and allowing survivors to control the works for a short term after the creator’s death.

    I think that the torrents advocates are conflating bad law with self-entitlement. They have justifiable anger at corporations having the long-term ability to lock up cultural and artistic treasures for corporate gain LONG after the creator of that work has died. That’s bad. But that gets combined with, “they charge too much, and I have the right to access that work now without paying for it”, even when the creator is still alive.

    Libraries, as you pointed out, have a legal framework for loaning copyrighted digital works within the law; file sharing doesn’t. So, it seems to me that rather than making the silly argument that libraries are “just like” illegal file sharing when they so obviously aren’t, they ought to argue for law changes to reform copyright.

    Which is not to say that the media corporations are saints in this, because they aren’t. Their arguments are usually transparently silly, too. The two sides are so much alike, in fact, that I’d be surprised if media corporations weren’t also trying to make the same argument about libraries in order to restrict access to copyrighted digital works in public libraries.

  2. Elsewhere, I know that I’ve been hypercritical of the ever-expanding time frame of copyright. Totally not in keeping with original intent.

  3. “Elsewhere, I know that I’ve been hypercritical of the ever-expanding time frame of copyright. Totally not in keeping with original intent.”

    Yes, you have—and it’s helped frame my own thinking on this subject!

  4. Libraries are bastions of intellect. They are trusted institutions staffed with wonderful people (mostly, ha ha ha).

    Napster is Napster, and on and on. ‘Nuff said! Amy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.