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When knowledge is barricaded

An opinion of Nathan Delbrassine, young law graduate from ULB and activist active in legal aid to asylum seekers.

Next to the culture that is dying, there is the one that is being murdered. Since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, culture has paid a heavy price. This is the time chosen by American publishers to try to force the closure of the Internet Archive site and access to the knowledge it offers.

What is the Internet Archive?

Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that attempts to digitize and provide access to resources – audios, videos, books – in the public domain and therefore free of copyright. Over time, this organization has developed different projects and services. Among these projects, “the Open Library”, through which the Internet Archive makes it possible to download books in the public domain but also to grant, for a limited period, access to protected digital books. The project has also developed a book scanning service in order to further expand the catalog of available works. Internet Archive works with many institutions, including MIT, to unite their efforts to digitize and distribute their collections.

What is the problem ?

Recognizing the impact of the epidemic on access to knowledge, the organization decided to increase the maximum limit of books that users can borrow temporarily and at one time (1). Moreover, the Collège de France also gave free access, for a certain time, to works published under its aegis.

This is the pretext used by a number of publishers – such as Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins and Wiley – to bring legal action against the Internet Archive. This is a pretext because the publishers want the entire organization to disappear.

However, there are many public libraries where books can be borrowed free of charge for a limited time without any problem. Why would this be the case with the Internet Archive?

Inequalities, pandemic and knowledge

The pandemic is worsening inequalities. The key to reducing inequalities in the long term is the dissemination of knowledge (1). Therefore, to meet the challenges of the pandemic, we are depriving ourselves of one of the most effective tools to meet them.

In addition to the victims of the pandemic, let us not forget those who do not have access to a library or a library large enough to be able to benefit from recent knowledge. It is also about all the people who do not know how to go to the library or whose reading is difficult or impossible without the help of technical means. They risk losing one of their only tools.

Publishers’ law

The publishers of scientific journals make the law when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge. Think of Aaron Swartz, driven to suicide by the disproportionate charges against him. He risked 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for wanting to distribute scientific articles. Worse, this situation paralyzes research.

The answer of the editions is that “the production of knowledge has a cost”. This is not true. The scientific publishing industry generates 7.6 billion euros in turnover per year. These reviews are essential. They contain the most recent scientific information. The price of these journals increased by 7% per year between 2004 and 2014 without justification. Most researchers are paid with public money, articles and peer review are provided and performed free of charge. The cost of publishing is less than 2% of the total cost of the research. Consequently, the researchers provide free information, necessary and financed by all, to a few editions which resell them to these same scientists who, given the price charged, can no longer afford it. Universities are forced to give up certain journals because of the exorbitant price. So researchers and students need tools like the Internet Archive because they cannot afford to access resources. If universities no longer have access to what constitutes the heart of their mission, how could a citizen, under these conditions, have access to quality information? How could he act as a citizen?

This “editorial-cultural complex”, of a few scientific journals sharing the market, is a danger in the face of fake news. We can access fake news in three clicks, but access to quality information involves paying exorbitant amounts. This is why initiatives like the Internet Archive must be protected and encouraged because they are not only an instrument for reducing inequalities, they are also a weapon, in the fight against fake news, essential for a democratic society in healthy.

Title and hat are from the editorial staff. Original title: “Culture: stupidity is released and knowledge is barricaded”.

(1) Piketty T, Le capital au XXIe siècle, Parris, Le Seuil, 2013, p.47.

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