Z-Library operators arrested, charged with criminal copyright infringement

There's a legal line between book borrowing and piracy

Two Russian nationals accused of operating Z-Library – one of the largest online book piracy websites – have been charged with criminal copyright infringement, wire fraud and money laundering.

According to a newly unsealed indictment, 33-year-old Anton Napolsky and 27-year-old Valeriia Ermakova, both of St Petersburg, Russia, operated the site between January 2018 and November 2022, allowing people to freely download pirated books and academic papers.

The duo "did knowingly and willfully infringe a copyright for purposes of commercial advantage and private financial gain" by distributing copyrighted works "having a total retail value of more than $2,500," according to the court documents [PDF].

They were arrested on November 3 in Cordoba, Argentina, at the request of the United States. Around the same time, the Feds also took down Z-Library's network of nearly 250 domains and seized its assets – much to the dismay of students everywhere who used the site to access textbooks and academic journals without paying the hefty price tags charged by academic publishers.

Meanwhile, the Authors Guild, which last month submitted a complaint [PDF] to the Trade Representative office about Z-Library and similar piracy sites, "welcomed" the development. 

"The arrest and indictment of Z-Library operators is one of the biggest breakthroughs in the fight against online criminal e-book piracy to date," Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger said in a statement

"While we are heartened by the takedown and the resulting reduction in harm to authors," Rasenberger continued, "we are not unsympathetic to the plight of those college and other students who have perhaps felt forced to resort to such illegal pirate websites and other free sources of textbooks to help them manage the extremely high cost of higher education."

The universities – not authors and publishers – are at fault for the "exorbitant cost of education," she added. "It should not be used to justify reliance on foreign criminals for textbooks or to trivialize the immense personal and economic harm Z-Library was causing authors who are trying to make a living under increasingly difficult and hostile economic circumstances."

Z-Library set up shop around 2009, and over the course of its existence claimed to offer more than 11 million e-books that users could download for free. It also allowed users to upload books and articles, many of which were copyrighted works. Of course, the shady "library" didn't have distribution rights to any of these works, and that put it at odds with publishers – and the law.

"As alleged, the defendants profited illegally off work they stole, often uploading works within mere hours of publication, and in the process victimized authors, publishers and booksellers," said Breon Peace, US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in announcing the arrests and charges against Napolsky and Ermakova.

The fact that both the Authors Guild and the students who accessed the site recognize that Z-Library was a flawed solution to a broken market indicates that there is some impetus to fix the model. Z-Library may be gone, but it may have taken the first steps towards a workable system of digital distribution for academic texts. ®

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