Nefarious

New York Public Library, built in 1911.

Torrentfreak is reporting that OCLC, owner of the WorldCat database of bibliographic records, is suing the “shadow library” search engine Anna’s Archive. The claim: that Anna’s Archive hacked into WorldCat, copied 2.2TB of records, and posted them publicly.

Shadow libraries are the text version of “pirate” sites. The best-known is probably Sci-Hub, which provides free access to hundreds of thousands of articles from (typically expensive) scientific journals. Others such as Library Genesis and sites on the dark web offer ebooks. Anna’s Archive indexes as many of these collections as it can find; it was set up in November 2022, shortly after the web domains belonging to the then-largest of these book libraries, Z-Library, were seized by the US Department of Justice. Z-Library has since been rebuilt on the dark web, though it remains under attack by publishers and law enforcement.

Anna’s Archive also includes some links to the unquestionably legal and long-running Gutenberg Project, which publishes titles in the public domain in a wide variety of formats.

The OCLC-Anna’s Archive case has a number of familiar elements that are variants of long-running themes, open versus gatekept being the most prominent. Like many such sites (post-Napster), Anna’s Archive does not host files itself. That’s no protection from the law; authorities in various countries from have nonetheless blocked or seized the domains belonging to such sites. But OCLC is not a publisher or rights holder, although it takes large swipes at Anna’s Archive for lawlessness and copyright infringement. Instead, it says Anna’s Archive hacked WorldCat, violating its terms and conditions, disrupting its business arrangements, and costing it $1.4 million and 10,000 employee hours in system remediation. Second, it complains that Anna’s Archive has posted the data in the aggregate for public download, and is “actively encouraging nefarious use of the data”. Other than the use of “nefarious”, there seems little to dispute about either claim; Anna’s Archive published the details in an October 2023 blog posting.

Anna’s Archive describes this process as “preserving” the world’s books for public access. OCLC describes it as “tortious inference” with its business. It wants the court to issue injunctive relief to make the scraping and use of the data stop, compensatory damages in excess of $75,000, punitive damages, costs, and whatever else the court sees fit. The sole named defendant is a US citizen, MarĂ­a A. Matienzo, thought to be resident near Seattle. If the identification and location are correct, that’s a high-risk situation to be in.

In the blog posting, Anna’s Archive writes that its initial goal was to answer the question of what percentage of the world’s published books are held in shadow libraries and create a to-do list of gaps to fill. To answer these questions, they began by scraping ISBNdb, the database of publications with ISBNs, which only came into use in 1970. When the overlap with the Internet Archive’s Open Library and the seized Z-library was less than they hoped, they turned to Worldcat. At that point, they openly say that security flaws in the fortuitously redesigned Worldcat website allowed them to grab more or less the comprehensive set of records. While scraped“>scraping can be legal, exploiting security flaws to gain unauthorized access to a computer system likely violates the widely criticized Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), which could be a felony. OCLC has, however, brought a civil case.

Anna’s Archive also searches the Internet Archive’s Open Library, founded in 2006. In 2009, co-creator Aaron Swartz told me that he believed the creation of Open Library pushed OCLC into opening up greater public access to the basic tier of its bibliographic data. The Open Library currently has its own legal troubles; it lost in court in August 2023 after Hachette sued it for copyright infringement. The Internet Archive is appealing; in the meantime it is required to remove on request of any member of the American Asociation of Publishers any book commercially available in electronic format.

OCLC began life as the Ohio Library College Library Center; its WorldCat database is a collaboration between it and its member libraries to create a shared database of bibliographic records and enable online cataloguing. The last time I wrote about it, in 2009, critics were complaining that libraries in general were failing to bring book data onto the open web. It has gotten a lot better in the years since, and many local libraries are now searchable online and enable their card holders to borrow from their holdings of ebooks over the web.

The fact that it’s now often possible to borrow ebooks from libraries should mean there’s less reason to use unauthorized sites. Nonetheless, these still appeal: they have the largest catalogues, the most convenient access, DRM-free files, and no time limits, so you can read them at your leisure using the full-featured reader you prefer.

In my 2009 piece, an OCLC spokesperson fretted about “over-exploitation”, which there would be no good way to maintain or update countless unknown scattered pockets of data, seemingly a solvable problem.

OCLC and its member libraries are all non-profit organizations ultimately funded by taxpayers. The data they collect has one overriding purpose: to facilitate public access to libraries’ holdings by showing who holds what books in which editions. What are “nefarious” uses? Arguably, the data they collect should be public by right. But that’s not the question the courts will decide.

Illustrations: The New York Public Library, built 1911 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

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