In the Shadow Library

Georgie Newson

Last month, Z-Library – one of the world’s most popular ‘shadow libraries’, or unlicensed eBook databases – was shut down by the FBI. Two of its alleged operators, both Russian nationals, were arrested in Argentina on behalf of the US authorities and charged with criminal copyright infringement. Z-Library, which archived 11 million books and 84 million articles, had a good claim to being the largest resource of its kind, and had managed to skirt serious legal action since it first emerged as a replica, or mirror, of Library Genesis (LibGen) in 2009.

After the arrests, most of the domains associated with Z-Library were overwritten by an FBI seizure notice, but the repository was still accessible via Tor and other anonymising browsers. A few days after the official indictment the remaining Z-Librarians realised a statement. They expressed regret at the arrests and apologised to any writers who had ‘suffered’ because of the site, but stuck to the principles that had guided its creation. ‘We believe,’ they wrote, ‘that the knowledge and cultural heritage of mankind should be accessible to all people around the world, regardless of their wealth, social status, nationality [or] citizenship.’ The democratisation of knowledge, they maintained, was Z-Library’s ‘only purpose’. They quoted a few lines from Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’, and went silent.

The comments beneath the blog post were immediately flooded with expressions of solidarity from readers around the world. Many of those commenting were from China, Russia and the Global South, where students and researchers often rely on sites like Z-Library to access materials that would otherwise be off-limits because of high prices, uneven supply chains, under-resourced educational institutions or state censorship.

‘Fuck American imperialists,’ they wrote. ‘Damn all the capitalist vampires that seek to annex the commons of Reason’; ‘Communism in knowledge!’ The purpose of the FBI raid, they agreed, was to further the interests of Western intellectual property holders at the expense of people already disadvantaged by inequalities in global knowledge production. More than one comment compared the shutdown to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

The seizure of Z-Library was the latest episode in an ongoing tussle between shadow libraries and state authorities. In 2015, when the academic publishing giant Elsevier took LibGen and Sci-Hub to court in the US, the sites were found to be in breach of copyright regulations and ordered to pay $15 million in damages (they didn’t). In 2020, Elsevier teamed up with Wiley and the American Chemical Society to sue the sites again, this time in Delhi; the case is ongoing, but seems likely to go the publishers’ way. Yet shadow libraries remain effectively impossible to prosecute, let alone abolish. The sites are generally hosted in countries with inefficient judicial systems or flexible copyright laws, and are managed by networks of anonymous operators.

Even when a library’s developers can be located and brought before an American court – in the Z-Library case, data procured from Google and Amazon were used to link the suspects to Z-Library email accounts and donations – there is no guarantee that an indictment will lead to the removal of the database itself. Individual domain names can be seized, but a sprawling ecosystem of back-ups and mirror sites will sprout up in their place. Anna’s Archive, an open-source search engine for shadow libraries, is already transferring 31 terabytes of books from Z-Library to its collection, with the aim of one day cataloguing ‘all the books in existence’.

Given the widespread support among academics for open-access research, it’s easy to portray the argument over shadow libraries as a straightforward conflict between profit-hungry publishing houses and the people who most need their services. Yet a lot of writers have complained about the model promoted by pirate sites, especially those working in commercial publishing – an area in which Z-Library was seeing ever-increasing uploads. A statement made in 2020 by the Authors Guild to the US Congress was cited as a spur for the recent FBI crackdown.

The precise extent of the losses inflicted by shadow libraries on both authors and publishers remains unclear. A study quoted in the Authors Guild statement used self-reported data to estimate that the sites were uploading around $315 million of content a year, depressing legitimate book sales by nearly 14 per cent. But that assumes that people who download material from shadow libraries would be both willing and able to pay for it if they couldn’t get it for free.

A study conducted across US universities found that interlibrary requests for materials did not increase in number as Sci-Hub usage decreased (or vice versa), as would be expected if users were turning to the sites simply for convenience. Another study suggested that a significant share of downloads from shadow libraries contains materials that are not otherwise digitally available, even through a funded subscription service. It is likely that even in rich, well-resourced countries, most readers are not making a choice between paying for a source and downloading it illegally, but between downloading it illegally or not accessing it at all.

In the indictment against the Z-Library operators, the prosecutors overlook not only the norms of the contemporary infosphere, but the more old-fashioned ideals behind the concept of a public library. Given the library’s status as both facilitator and symbol of the free circulation of knowledge, it is surprising that academic publishing should not have adapted more easily to the increasing demand for open-access digital media. Then again, libraries, despite their associations of epistemic egalitarianism, have in practice often been the preserve of a select few: not infinite Borgesian spheres but cloistered spaces whose borders are carefully patrolled.

And simply busting open the doors to the libraries will not magically make their contents accessible to everyone. Despite shadow libraries’ roots in Soviet and post-Soviet samizdat culture, and despite their widespread adoption by university students in India, Argentina and Brazil, rates of use on the leading sites are highest among well-educated Europeans and Americans. Anna’s Archive’s catalogue of ‘all the books in existence’ could not by itself rectify the many inequalities of access. But it would be a start.


  • 14 December 2022 at 5:59pm
    hullister says:
    Even though so many parameters of the publishing business are today very different, it's not hard to recall the multitude of American publishers who in the 19th century were happy to ignore copyright and make a lot of money by printing without permission writers like Dickens.

  • 14 December 2022 at 8:55pm
    bentoth says:
    "it is surprising that academic publishing should not have adapted more easily to the increasing demand for open access digital media"
    It was only when they found a way to maintain their profit margin that the mega academic journal publishers began to support open access instead of undermining it. And worth recalling that one of the first acts of Elsevier's so called open access lead was to restrict access to the Lancet in the global south so that it could funnel users into its bespoke income generating scheme. In contrast the founder of Sci Hub, Alexandra Elbakyan, deserves every credit for her pioneering efforts to improve open access.

  • 14 December 2022 at 10:04pm
    Mike Cody says:
    "In the indictment against the Z-Library operators, the prosecutors overlook not only the norms of the contemporary infosphere, but the more old-fashioned ideals behind the concept of a public library"

    First, I was a regular supporter and user of z-books and found it a convenient place to get my book fixes, That being said, however, there are two important differences between the z-books model and that of the public library. First, the public library buys the books it lends, and second, it does not promote the users making their own unlicensed copies of the books.

  • 14 December 2022 at 11:01pm
    Valerie Aston says:
    As someone who was saved from a life of drudgery and disenfranchisement by a public library, I can only applaud the existence of Z-Library etc. No matter their origins, some of us are hungry for information and knowledge and the experience of literature. However we cannot pay for all of it, as publishers and other capitalists would like. Hence the need for free sites, in order to democratise knowledge .

  • 15 December 2022 at 10:15am
    L LL says:
    These people are parasitic criminals, profiting from others' efforts, it's a shame to see such a one-sided article in the LRB.

    • 15 December 2022 at 2:15pm
      ARobertson says: @ L LL
      I agree that the academic publishers are indeed parasitic criminals, profiting from others' efforts; though I think the article is pretty even-handed.

    • 18 December 2022 at 12:58pm
      bentoth says: @ L LL
      Parasitic criminals - a bit harsh on Elsevier but not far off the mark.

  • 15 December 2022 at 5:32pm
    Áine Gearailt says:
    I write some of those articles in Elsevier, ACS and Wiley journals etc. For free. I also review others in same journals. For free. I download those articles for free because my university has paid a subscription or because they are open access and somebody else's university had paid. Nobody sends me or my library a nicely printed and bound copy any more - but you can see a copy of what the cover would look like, and pay for the privilege of being there. I think it is called monetising. So what do publishers actually do? What do they do to deserve the vast increase in revenue and profit they have seen, over the last 20 years. And as we approach peak publishing and they are then forced to pay overworked academics to review submissions and their subscriptions therefore increase and university budgets decrease and ... and... and..., maybe my research office will start sending me discreet and non-attributable links to Z-library sites. Click here for Athens, click here for somewhere else.

  • 19 December 2022 at 1:18pm
    Henry Holland says:
    ARobertson and bentoth do a good job at refuting @ L LL's ill-informed argument about who the parasite is in the economic & cultural battles between shadow libraries, major publishers, and producers of intellectual property in text form: authors and translators. Of course the latter have a legitimate grievance when the results of their huge efforts—poorly paid, on average, in the first place—are taken from them without a yuan or penny of compensation, by the shadow libraries. But the big news not mentioned in Georgie Newson's informative post is the role corporate publishing plays in the expropriation of the same group. Renowned scholarly publishers including Brill and Verso, whose books are often reviewed in the LRB, refuse to award translators copyright —and by extension, any royalty sharing—for 95% of the translations they publish. This is despite copyright, and royalty sharing "from the first copy sold" being a key demand of the UK Translator's Assocation, and its European translator-bodies umbrella organisation, CEATL, many of whose national member organisations are affiliated with major unions by turn. So there's a much bigger story to be told here, about major publishers hoovering up intellectual property that they haven't paid for (established translators can provide long list of scholarly publishers who also refuse to pay for the translations they use; responsibility for translation funding is outsourced to third party, mostly non-profit organizations), and using the same to keep their own commercial operations ticking over. Without adequately recompensing the authors and translators who created that intellectual property. For more information see this interview with translator Shaun Whiteside, President or CEATL:, and this statement by CEATL on why literary translators are authors, and have a legal and ethical 'right' to copyright: An alternative perspective on Anna, who run's Anna's Archive, is that much or the intellectual property she's improving access to, has never been (properly) paid for by the publishers who exploit it:

  • 19 December 2022 at 3:17pm
    Rory Allen says:
    The Internet Archive is both free and (up to now at any rate) legally available. It gets round the copyright issue by making most books only available on a short term borrow, of one hour at a time, though this is renewable. It is an amazing resource and I'm surprised so many people seem to be totally unaware of it.

  • 20 December 2022 at 4:34pm
    nlowhim says:
    Brilliantly written. i would hope that history is on the side of those who try to spread information rather than cloister it, but I get the sense that in this new age we’re entering, that may not be the case. If we are to have any hope as a species we need to spread information far and wide. But as with all the other tests our species have been put to lately (while being given the answers), we’re trying hard to fail

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