On Nov. 4, 2022, a free online library with over 10 million free e-books, ranging from children’s picture books to academic textbooks, was shut down for the foreseeable future.
Z-Library was one of the internet’s largest sources of pirated e-books. It was recently seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation following a series of legal complaints made by The Author’s Guild, an organization of more than 12,000 members committed to supporting working writers.
Users who attempt to access this site are now greeted with a screen displaying the warrant of seizure instead of a catalog of this week’s top downloaded books. These types of pirated e-book websites are coined as “shadow libraries.”
Z-Library, often shortened to Zlib, was created in 2009 but gained popularity over the past three years on TikTok with the hashtag “zlibrary.” According to The Author’s Guild, the hashtag is reported to have at least four million views.
“Authors generally rely on multiple revenue streams to pull together a living, and they are increasingly exploring new ways to revive out-of-print works when the rights have reverted to them, especially as e-books,” stated a legal complaint issued by The Author’s Guild to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).
Shadow libraries like Z-Lib make it more difficult for authors to receive commissions from their books since these sites offer them for free, usually as e-books.
The complaint stated that Z-Library reached a level of notoriety superior to Library Genesis (Libgen), its counterpart shadow library, due to TikTok. The Author’s Guild places blame on the social media platform for allowing the popularity of the website to grow.
“We are committed to promoting a safe and positive environment for our users and rights holders. TikTok’s Terms of Service and Community Guidelines (collectively, “Terms”) do not allow posting, sharing, or sending any content that violates or infringes someone else’s copyrights, trademarks, or other intellectual property rights,” TikTok wrote in a statement responding to The Author’s Guild criticism.
The social media platform has since banned and blocked the usage of the hashtag “zlib.”
When readers found out about the seizure of Z-Library, many took to Twitter in outrage, sparking a debate over whether the act was a government overreach, or rather the government protecting copyright laws.
“Zlib gives access to a variety of readers in various countries and social backgrounds. It provides them with the opportunity to learn [things] which they might not have been able to do otherwise,” said Rose Cobalt, an avid reader and former user of Z-Library. “The government getting involved would defeat [its] purpose.”
Despite the government seizing Z-Library, readers still seekout alternate shadow libraries — Libgen is a top choice. Since Oct. 29, 2022, Libgen searches have been steadily increasing while the search term “bookstores near me” has been on the decrease.
In a global era of economic uncertainty and inflation, books are one of many commodities whose prices have been rising. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) reported that from Oct. 2021 to Dec. 2022, the price of recreational reading materials has risen by 4.5 percent and the price of college textbooks has risen 7.6 percent.
Many college students and avid readers turned to Z-Library in an effort to evade the rising costs of all types of books including textbooks or scholarly books. A study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Education Fund found that 65% of college students cannot afford their textbooks. With the seizure of Z-Library, they now are pushed to either find alternatives or pay up.
In 2021-2022, the average postsecondary student paid roughly between $400 to $1,470 on books and other academic materials annually. A hard copy textbook can cost up to $400, with an average cost between $80 and $150, according to a study conducted by the Education Data Initiative.
“Zlib was used for academic books by students around the world. University books aren’t cheap — some of them are a few hundred dollars each — and a few thousand dollars each semester is a lot of added burden,” Cobalt said.
In order to pay for these supplies, 25% of students reported working extra hours and 11% of students even reported skipping meals to spend their money on academic books and materials instead.
Many readers and students have expressed that there is a larger conversation to be had about the Z-Library ban, considering how Z-Library helped lower textbook costs for students, gave people a right to information as well as education and provided books to those in countries where books are not easily accessible.
“This website has been created to help many students and book readers, especially those who don’t have access to libraries,” said Manal, a 21-year-old from Bahrain, over text. “Z-Library being taken down has affected quite a lot of people, especially those who don’t have the luxury to buy those books or those living in areas that do not have access to libraries.”
For security reasons, Manal declined to share her last name.
In Bahrain, information remains controlled and restricted by the government. Freedom House, a non-profit organization that conducts research on political freedoms and human rights in countries around the globe, gave Bahrain an internet freedom score of 29 out of 100 due to widespread censorship, numerous barriers to access and insufficient privacy rights.
In an email statement regarding the latest developments of the Z-Library case, Mary Rasenberger, CEO of The Author’s Guild, responded to claims from Z-Library users that the site allowed them to acquire expensive academic materials that were otherwise unaffordable.
“The exorbitant cost of education should not be borne by authors and publishers but by the universities, and it should not be used to justify reliance on foreign criminals for textbooks or trivialize the immense personal and economic harm Z-Library was causing authors,” Rasenberger said.
While the government’s acquisition of Z-Library harms those in the U.S. who cannot afford books, it protects against copyright and intellectual property infringements. The hope is that readers will be redirected towards legal avenues to purchase these books, benefiting the authors and writers who depend on revenue from book sales for their livelihood.
“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,” Rasenberger said.
With universities requiring students to buy the newest — and sometimes most expensive — edition of their textbooks, students have to search for other ways to save money, especially following the crackdown on shadow library sites. Some ways students may want to consider are buying used books or renting them out and looking for international editions, which are usually 60% cheaper than U.S editions. Students can also check for Open Educational Resources (OERs, OEMs, or OSMs), which provide course materials specifically designed to be free and accessible to students.
Despite the U.S government intervention and indiciment of Z-Library in 2022, the shadow library never went completely down as it continued to operate on the dark web.
“We believe the knowledge and cultural heritage of mankind should be accessible to all people around the world, regardless of their wealth, social status, nationality, citizenship, etc. This is the only purpose Z-Library is made for,” said Z-Library members in a statement.
On Feb. 13, Torrentfreak reported that Z-Library has returned to the publicly accessible internet (Clearnet) using a hydra setup. This setup provides each user their own private domain name when accessing the library, making it more difficult for the FBI to locate and eradicate the site. Other websites that offer access to pirated materials have used the same approach to keep their services online.
“We have great news for you – Z-Library is back on the Clearnet again,” a Z-Library blog post said. “We are already working on making the login page accessible to all users.”
It’s unclear whether this new setup will effectively combat future seizures. However, this move from Z-Library operators demonstrates just how determined they are to keep their website online — and to keep the books in their library free for anyone who may not otherwise be able to afford them.