It is the number one question of our days. “Does anyone have a PDF of…” What does this question mean? What are its challenges and its opportunities? Here is an attempt to make sense of it.
“Do you have a PDF of such-and-such?” he asked. I did a quick search and found a PDF of a couple of chapters of the book. “Only partially,” I replied. Meanwhile I opened the online catalogue of the university library, just around the corner from where we were sitting. I added, “but the university has a copy on the shelf.” “No,” he sighed, “never mind. Too much hassle.” We fell silent and only our mouse and keyboard produced again the occasional sound. Each of us absorbed in our digital world constructed of thousands of PDFs.
It is, I think, a good example of our current state of affairs. Even when the university goes trough the trouble of putting the book right there on the shelf, for anyone to just pick up, for students and scholars it seems more and more like a waste of time to get up and walk over to the library. It’s a place where books come to die. Even people who do go to libraries do not come for the books. They bring their laptop and continue to do what they did elsewhere: stare at their screens until their eyes go sore.
And I say: that’s great. It is the way forward and the beauty of it is that it happened virtually without any conscious effort: people simply instinctively understood that this is how technology works. That you can just ask anyone for a file and the other person can send the file and now you both have the file. It is convenient, fast, reliable. It is making use of technology in a near optimal way: to make life easier, not harder. If technology allows it, we cannot restrict ourselves. We must follow the possibility of technology, not let technology follow the possibility of whatever other restriction because it will always feel like an imposition, an arbitrary restriction, a false restriction. Technology makes life easier. It is human nature to be lazy. Ergo, people will gravitate towards the most straight-forward technological solution to obtain their goals.
This question, “does anyone have a PDF of…”, is asked on an interpersonal basis. Quite often it is a question directed at one or several specific people. People you know. Sometimes it is directed at a larger group of people whom you may not know personally. Still the communication is between actual human beings. Parties traditionally involved in the dissemination of knowledge, such as libraries and publishing houses, have been forced to respond to this change. All of a sudden they are cut out of the loop. By and large, these parties have realized that the only way is to also offer PDFs. Publishers package their publications in PDFs and databases of PDFs. Librarians purchase these products and do their best to allow their patrons to find and access publications. At the same time, such access is still only possible through several steps. Several more steps than to simply ask your friend or colleague if they have a PDF of… Besides, quite often publishers do not wish to give their products away and only grant visibility access but not download access. PDFs are caged in. Technology is castrated in favor of projected profit margins. Even ordinary users find this annoying bordering at the unusable. So far, the caging in of PDFs, such as done by EBSCO and ProQuest, seems to be mostly a business between publishers and librarians. Actual users prefer to look elsewhere and ask around if anyone has a PDF of…
Publishers remain convinced that they and only they have the right to answer that question. It seems that they think that only they may say “I have that PDF!” And so next to actually offering those PDFs, they have also resorted to attacking those that also answer that question in the affirmative. At this point they play the jurisprudence card. Publications are protected by copyright law. Copyright laws vary from country to country, but what unites them is that they are arcane laws that were formulated when people could not even dream of the possibilities of the Internet. To be using them is a joke, but unfortunately for us a cruel one.
Another common feature of copyright laws of most countries is that they speak of “fair use”. You are totally in your right to make copies, as long as one can speak of a fair use. It is a fluid concept (after all, what really is ‘fair’?) but for the context of PDFs distributed over the internet, there is one aspect that sticks out: commercial use. If you copy someone else’s work and make money off it, then that is not fair. It is a simple argument to which we can all agree. It is this argument that publishers are wielding with ever more force and vehemence.
The crux of the matter is that virtually everything on the internet -I mean providers, hosts, websites, etc.- is run by private corporations. There are very few “public spaces” on the web, notable exceptions being Wikipedia.com and Archive.com. Indeed, nearly all our communications platforms are for-profit endeavors. Think of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Gmail, Academia.edu, Dropbox. These are all run by for-profit organizations and their sole purpose is to create cash. On the internet, if you are not paying for it, you are the product. If you are active on, say, Facebook, and others want to read your posts, they will also see advertisements and this generates income for Facebook. Thus, transferring files through any of these platforms is generating, in a somewhat abstract sense, income for these companies. They are now making commercial use of these copies.
Others factors are at play as well, but I think this is the main issue that we need to sort out: what does commercial use mean and how can we make sure technology is not perverted by arbitrary impositions from the powers that be. Whatever we do, let us not stop asking if anyone has a PDF of…