digital libraries

The Universal Digital Library: A Platform that Makes Digital Piracy Unnecessary, Funds Creators, and Makes eBooks, Games and Software Affordable

There is no reason why we can’t make a perfectly legal, and better, alternative to platforms like Popcorn Time

In my previous essay Why Digital Piracy is Ethical and Necessary I discussed why there are no proper digital libraries: publishers pretend that digital goods cannot be sold. They demand continuous rents for digital products they give to libraries, making things like ebooks costlier (and for more difficult to lend due to various licensing clauses) than printed books. In this essay I will discuss an alternative model for digital libraries that will accomplish the following:

  • It will accomplish everything the digital piracy scene currently accomplishes: providing a very low-cost method of conveniently accessing digital products.
  • It will help break the power of the publishers by bypassing them: the library becomes an alternative platform where creators can offer their products for “sale” (as will be explained).
  • It will help create an open alternative to the “walled garden” approaches of Steam and Kindle Unlimited.
  • It will help support creators by creating a highly convenient method for people from around the world to pool their funds in order to buy the products they need.

This is how the Universal Digital Library works: When the Library buys a copy of a digital product (we will use the example of an ebook), it buys the right to lend out one copy of this ebook to one user at a time for two weeks. If two library users want to access the same ebook at the same time, the Library pays for a second copy of the ebook to lend out to the second user. Once two weeks are over, the ebook is “returned”, meaning that it is deleted from the user’s computer by the Library program. Once it is returned, the ebook can be lent out again to another user.

In this way, the Universal Digital Library recreates the way a traditional, real-world library works. It treats digital goods exactly like physical goods. An ebook is just like a print book: the Library has to acquire one copy for each user. If there is a bestseller that thousands of people want to read at the same time, the Library will need to pay for thousands of copies of that book if it wants every user to read it immediately. If the Library cannot afford to pay for thousands of copies, users will need to join waiting lists as in a real library.

This creates an interesting economic effect: a digital product can only sell as many copies as there are people who want to use it simultaneously. If the maximum number of Library members who want to read your ebook is 1000 at the ebook’s most popular phase, and if the Library buys 1000 copies to satisfy all members, from then on the sales of the ebook will drop to zero since every member that comes afterwards will have access to one of those 1000 copies to borrow (once the members start “returning” them).

This, of course, means that ebook creators will have to price their ebooks very high in order to make a profit, since the Library gobbles all the copies it needs until it stops buying. And that is fine, as I discuss below.

Major Features of the Library

A Self-Publishing and Fundraising Platform for Digital Creators

The Library will have a self-serve system for ebook creators, video game makers, software makers, filmmakers and the creators of all other kinds of sell-able and lend-able digital products. If you write ebooks, you can upload the book to the library, set your price, then let the users start borrowing it. The Library will have a pool of money that it uses to buy copies of products that users borrow. The Library will need an algorithm to decide when to buy books: it will take into account the demand for it and the book’s sale price. If Stephen King wants to put his latest book on the Library, he can price each copy at $1,000 USD. For every Library member who joins the waiting list for that book, the Library assigns a certain portion of funds to buying a copy. In order to reward more affordably priced products, the Library can use the following algorithm to decide how much funds to allocate for buying each product:

for each member on the waiting list, during each funding round, assign this amount in dollars to the book's buying fund: 1 / square root of the sale price

This algorithm is designed to reward affordably priced products: the amount of funds assigned to each product decreases the higher its price is

So if a book is priced at $1,000, 1 over its square root is 1/31.6, or $0.03. This means that for every member who joins the waiting list for Stephen King’s book, the Library assigns $0.03 to buying it during each funding round. A funding round could be a daily thing: every day the Library distributes all its income (from donations and subscription fees) over all products on members’ waiting lists. So if there are 100,000 members on Stephen King’s book’s waiting list, that means 300,000 cents will be assigned to its buying fund per day, meaning $3000 per day. This means that the Library acquires three new copies of the book every day. Members will also be able to donate specifically to buying a certain product. So those 100,000 members on the waiting list may donate thousands of dollars daily to acquire more copies. In this way, the Library enables it members to pool their resources to acquire the products they want (if you wonder why anyone would want to donate, read on).

King may realize that he can make money faster by lowering the price. If he prices the book at $250 instead, that would mean $0.06 per user on the waiting list, amounting to $6000 per day. But that $6000 will now buy 24 copies every day. Within a month the Library will have 720 copies of the book. If King prices the book at only $10, the Library will pay out $31,000 per day, amounting to 3,100 copies bought per day. Within a month it will acquire about 100,000 copies, pay out about $1 million to King, and stop buying the book altogether since all possible demand is now met.

But when it comes to non-bestselling writers, they will have to price their books lower in order to make sales, since the waiting list for the book will be much shorter. Let’s say you write an ebook on repairing cars. You can upload the ebook to the Library and price it at $100. For each member who joins the book’s waiting list, 1/10 USD, or $0.10, will be assigned per day to its buying fund. Since the Library serves the entire world, 1000 people may simultaneously want to borrow the book at any one time, meaning that eventually the writer may sell $100,000 worth of the book. Each day the Library will assign $.10 USD for each member on the book’s waiting list, which equals $100 per day. The writer earns $100 per day for that ebook every day, and the Library acquires one new copy every day (since each copy costs $100). Eventually a point of equilibrium is reached where anyone can read the book without having to join a waiting list since the Library ends up having so many copies of it.

The Viable Photoshop Alternative

The Universal Library will not be for ebooks alone. It can also host anything else that can be sold digitally, such as software. The existence of the Library will actually encourage the creation of a wholly new ecosystem for software. A company may develop a Photoshop alternative, let’s call it Imageshop, and place it on the Library for $1000. The Library will have to acquire one copy of this software for each member who wants to use it. If the software is good enough, it would be no surprise of 100,000 people from around the world have a need for it simultaneously within a two-week period. And that means $100 million worth of copies that the Library will need to acquire in order to satisfy the demand.

Many companies may try to develop Photoshop alternatives to upload to the Library, and the ones that are priced cheaper will be funded more quickly due to the funding algorithm–provided that there is sufficiently high demand for it.

The way the Library will work on the client-side will be like Steam. Library members will “borrow” a piece of software, say Imageshop, which will be installed on their device for two weeks. Once the borrowing period is over, the Library program disables the software unless the Library member can renew their borrow and there is no waiting list. If there is a waiting list, the software may be disabled without being uninstalled until the borrow can be renewed. A member may also be allowed to renew their borrow by making a small donation which would cause them to jump to the top of the waiting list.

A Digital Sales Platform for Indie Films

If you want to make an independent film and sell it on the Internet, your options are limited to a few major companies that will demand a major share of any revenues. The Library can act as an independent movie publishing platform: Filmmakers upload their films to the Library and set a price. Similar to ebooks, high-demand films can set prices like $1000 and expect to make millions of dollars through the Library. Lower-demand films can set lower prices.

A Democratic Steam Alternative

Steam on my Linux desktop

Steam is Valve Corporation’s famous platform for buying and installing video games. Steam continues the anti-consumer traditions of the publishing industry but maintains a major user base due to its many convenient features. The Library can function as a Steam alternative: just like in the case for software, users can borrow games and play them for two weeks on their machines. The Library can function as a funding platform for independent video game companies: they can upload their game, set a price, and let the Library members decide (through joining the waiting list) how much the Library will spend on acquiring copies of it.

Ending Apple and Google’s App Store Walled Gardens of Garbage

Apple and Google’s approach to smartphone apps is “we and the publishers extracting every penny that can be extracted from consumers.” Google especially has made one of the most unusable app stores in its attempt to control which apps users buy. The Library can function as an app borrowing store where the same economics as those for other software will be at play.

Ending the Absurdity of Scientific Paper Pricing

How would you like to pay $15 to read a single article?

Today reading a 20-page scientific paper often costs $30 or more, making them unaffordable to independent researchers and encouraging the use of pirate platforms like Sci-Hub. The Universal Digital Library can democratize the scientific publishing world and allow researchers to pool their funds for convenient and low-cost access. Similar to ebooks, papers can be priced according to demand. A newly published paper that thousands of people will be interested in reading at the same time can be priced at $100 so that it earns about $100 per day from the Library. Lower-demand papers can be priced at $30 and still make thousands of dollars for its creators.

Ending Publisher Gatekeeping and Walled Garden Behavior

The promotional home page for Amazon’s rather limited Kindle Unlimited platform

The Library can act as a worldwide publisher that connects creators with consumers, making publishers unnecessary. Platforms like Kindle Unlimited are somewhat nice for reading books, but they are still extremely handicapped and consumer-unfriendly:

  • Amazon and publishers together decide what books to place on the platform. Users have no voice.
  • Amazon can arbitrarily remove any book it wants from its platform
  • Paying $10 a month to read a limited selection of books does not make sense unless you are the ideal Platonic consumer who only reads what major publishers dump on them (there is also a large selection of mostly sub-par works by unknown writers).

The Universal Digital Library will be the common-sense alternative to Kindle Unlimited. It will cost much less, it will break the power of publishers and middle men like Amazon, it will empower creators, and it will empower consumers by offering them full-featured versions of the products rather than highly stripped down and limited versions. Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader does not allow me to copy a single sentence from books I’m reading.

Kindle Unlimited is about turning ebooks into cable TV: Amazon and its friends get to decide what you can read and how you can read it.

If like me you are interested in making the world a better place through long-term-oriented projects, then you will see the Universal Digital Library as the wholesome, pro-humanity, creator-friendly and consumer-friendly alternative to absurd walled gardens like Kindle Unlimited.

The Two-Week Borrowing Period

I made a few mentions of a two-week borrowing period above. Such a period will have to be enforced just like in a physical library in order to allow members to have the time to use the digital products to their hearts’ content. The two-week borrowing period is also very important for creators since it decides how many copies of each product the Library will need. Since we are trying to recreate a physical Library in digital space, a two-week period seems sensible. However, just like in a physical library, users will be able to “return” their copies prior to the expiry of their borrow period.

How the Library Gets Funded

The Library will get funded through donations and possibly a low monthly subscription fee. The goal of the Library should be to make digital products accessible to those who cannot pay for them the ordinary way, so a free subscription plan may also be offered. The Library may also earn money through advertisements by recommending products to members, although the non-democratic nature of this always makes it a questionable practice. But if ads are necessary for the Library to exist or can make a significant contribution to improving it, then I believe they are justifiable.


We Can Make This Right Now

The Universal Digital Library does not have to wait for any breakthrough or legal change. It can be created right now. It will of course need to invite creators to upload their content according to the Library’s terms:

  • One copy for each simultaneous user.
  • The Library keeps the copy forever. Once it buys one copy of Imageshop, it is exactly the same as a physical library buying a physical book. The publisher has no right to demand it back.
  • The Library has the right to infinitely copy each product while paying the full price for each copy.

A single talented programmer will actually be able to build the entire platform. This is something I have thought about doing, but my other projects have so far prevented me.


The most difficult part will be implementing DRM (digital rights management) to prevent easily copying and sharing of the content of the Library by unfriendly actors. Now, the Library must take a common-sense approach to this problem: There is no way to prevent all piracy. There should be a minimum DRM that prevents casual users from sharing the Library’s contents illegitimately, but the DRM should not make the digital products less useful. Users should have access to proper PDF versions of books.

At the beginning the Library can function without any DRM. It will be like existing digital libraries like the pirate-made Popcorn Time. If creators can be convinced to upload their digital products without the existence of DRM, then that would be the best solution. DRM is largely about giving creators a false sense of security since users intent on piracy can always find a way. Using a few free and open source Linux tools a person could easily–within just a few minutes–copy the entire contents of a Kindle ebook and turn it into a PDF using Kindle’s Cloud Reader website. There is nothing Amazon can do about this.

The Library makes piracy largely unnecessary, so it is almost entirely a waste of efforts for it to worry about making piracy impossible. The Library’s program on my computer should be like Steam: it should be so convenient to use, and so powerful and rich, that I never have to think about pirating anything.

Why Digital Piracy is Ethical and Necessary

Disclaimer: This is an academic essay on the ethics of digital piracy. It is not a call for breaking the law by pirating. Some jurisdictions punish piracy severely, therefore the risk is entirely your own if you choose to break the law by pirating content.

For my proposal for a digital library that makes piracy unnecessary please see my essay The Universal Digital Library.

It is very strange that in these enlightened days there isn’t a single major philosophical voice to be heard that can talk intelligently about digital piracy. Publishers of software, films, songs, ebooks and scientific papers like to maintain that piracy is theft. The famous “You wouldn’t steal a car” ad is a typical example of publishers wanting to pressure digital pirates into ceasing piracy by likening piracy to the theft of cars and handbags. As I will explain, the amount of hubris and solipsism in the creators of such ads is breathtaking; the only reason piracy is rampant is because publishers are refusing to sell their digital products the way ordinary goods are sold. Since they can make more money by pretending that digital goods cannot be sold but only hired, they prevent functional digital libraries from existing, and this creates a very strong need for piracy as the only way such a library can be created.

Publishers are dead set on preventing the needy from pooling their resources to acquire the digital goods they need. The pretense that digital goods are only for hire enables publishers to legally create a  new type of oppressive and dystopian market dynamic where all the power belongs to the publishers and none to the consumers. Piracy is a natural and moral human reaction to this illicit power grab.

Copyright: the two aspects

In the digital world, “copyright” is the “right” of creators to two things:

  1. To not have their works used commercially without their permission.
  2. To not have their works lent freely and added to a worldwide library that anyone can access freely.

The first right is a moral right. Imagine if a person writes a great book and publishes 1000 copies of it, only for a big corporation to come and reprint millions of copies of it for its own profit. A person has some sort of moral right to dictate how their works are used in commercial settings. A photographer should get paid if their photo is used on someone’s book cover. The same applies to using someone’s music track in a film. In these cases, piracy is clearly “stealing” and people recognize it as such intuitively. YouTube channels that copy content from other channels without permission are incessantly charged with stealing by other YouTube users, showing that one does not need special powers to recognize the essential injustice in the commercial use of other people’s digital work without their permission.

Before the advent of printing, copying books by hand was accepted as a normal and moral practice. The only cases I can think of where writers objected to copying is where they had privately shared a book that they did not want to spread, as in Sir Isaac Newton’s private work The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms. This was a short book that he had written for the private use of Princess Caroline, later the Queen of England. It was pirated by the Parisian publisher Guillaume Cavalier and printed without his permission in 1725. In this case, two moral rights of Newton were violated: his right to privacy and his right for his work not to be used commercially without his permission.

I support the right of writers and other creators to have their privacy respected. However, once a book is released to the public, then the right to privacy is no longer applicable.

Once printing became easy, the problem arose of publishers “stealing” people’s writings and publishing them for profit, for this reason there was a need for copyright. The sense of “stealing” applies now when it did not apply in the past. Future revenues can now be expected from books, something that only became possible through printing. Books have become trade items, and without respecting the exclusive commercial rights of the writer, those future revenues will be lost to them. Therefore common decency, and thus morality, requires that we do not profit by other people’s intellectual works until they have become part of the public domain, for example until 20 years have passed since the publication of the work.

The second aspect

It is the second “right” that concerns us here. What moral right does a writer have to force me not to lend a book to my friends and family?

And if they accept that lending to friends and family is fine, what right do they have to prevent me from placing the book in a library so that the whole town may benefit from it?

They may concede that that is fine too, as long as the book is a legitimate copy that has been paid for. When it comes to digital books, or ebooks, writers want to import the reality of physical products into the digital world by introducing artificial limitations on how libraries can function. They want the digital library to function like a physical library so that only one person at a time can access an ebook if the library has only paid for one copy of the ebook. If the digital library wants ten people to be able to read the same ebook simultaneously, it will have to buy ten copies.

That is actually a great idea, despite its absurdity… if only publishers were decent enough to allow it. But they do not. They pretend digital goods cannot be bought, only hired. And that means they get to force all libraries to abide by the terms they dictate. Today a digital library cannot just buy an ebook and lend it out to those who want it. No, the publishers want to have their greedy hands on the entire lending process because they can–extracting every penny from it that they can.

The selling of digital goods similar to physical goods would have enabled the creation of a universal Internet library that all of humanity could benefit from. Henceforth I will refer to it as the Universal Library. It would have been something like the Steam platform that is currently used for video games, but it would have had all possible digital goods, and it would have only allowed one person at a time to use each copy of a product. A popular book that was demanded by 100 people simultaneously would have required that the library purchase 100 copies of it. Users would pay a monthly subscription fee that would go toward the maintenance of the library and the purchase of products.

A Universal Library would prevent any bestseller from selling more than a few hundred thousand copies, because that would be the maximum number of people throughout the world who would be interested in reading the book simultaneously during the book’s most popular phase. The library can buy a few hundred thousand copies and from there on sales would drop close to zero because anyone can access the book through the library.

Does a writer have a moral right to prevent their book from being placed in a Universal Library?

They do not. And that is why piracy is ethical when it is done by someone who cannot easily afford to buy the product (or who can only buy a highly dysfunctional version of it while the pirated version is far more useful, as in the case of viewing a book through Kindle’s cloud reader–which makes it impossible to copy and paste text–compared to viewing the same book after downloading it from a pirate site). Pirates are merely borrowing books from the “library” that publishers do not want created.

Today, in the world of piracy, we have three kinds of people:

  • Immoral publishers who abuse the law to prevent us from creating decent digital libraries.
  • Moral pirates who believe in supporting creators and do so when possible, but who use the morally-justified black market Universal Library created by the piracy scene. It is morally good for those who cannot afford a digital product to benefit from it, since it costs its creators nothing. It is morally evil for publishers to deprive such people of their products. The piracy scene helps achieve a moral good and prevent a moral evil.
  • There are also immoral pirates who can afford to buy a product easily but refuse to do so out of stinginess.

A decent human would want what is morally best for everyone involved. They should make money, but they will be happy to make less if it means a proper digital library can be created that can benefit humanity greatly. The people who need such a library are those who cannot buy the product anyway, and a decent human would be happy to share their digital products for free with those who cannot afford them (since digital products cost the creators nothing to replicate).

My thinking of online piracy therefore starts from this radical thought experiment:

What if publishers were decent humans?

The duty of sharing

A publisher will say that they want to sell (or rather lend out) their digital product according to the terms they dictate. You can take their product or leave it. If you want their product, you have to abide by their terms. This mentality uses legal constructs to work toward indecent, greedy and immoral aims. For this reason even though their thinking is legally valid, it is morally invalid. A publisher has no moral right to deprive the needy of goods that can be given away at zero cost. No one has such a moral right in this universe. They have a legal right to do these things, but if they use those legal rights, they are indecent humans.

In an ideal world of decent humans, digital products would be priced according to the paying ability of the buyer. Only those who can buy a $10 ebook without suffering economic hardship should pay for the ebook, everyone else should get it lent to them for free from a library. This is what decent humans will do, even though publishers will find it as shockingly unacceptable as Oliver Twist asking for more food.

Piracy as a market solution to publisher indecency

Digital pirates help restore the moral balance by making it possible for the needy to acquire digital products freely. The Internet piracy scene can be thought of as a black market Universal Library.

If publishers were not so greedy, there would already be a legitimate alternative to the piracy scene; the Universal Library that could lend millions of ebooks freely as the pirate Library Genesis does, a library for scientific and scholarly papers that could lend them freely as the pirate Sci-Hub does, and similar libraries for music, videos, software and video games.

That is what things would be like if publishers were decent humans. But since they are not, pirates have decided to create this library anyway since it is morally good, even if it is illegal. Pirates perform a service to humanity by making the greed and selfishness of publishers irrelevant and restoring the balance: those who can pay will pay for the products and those who cannot will get them lent to them for free from the pirate library.

The ethical pirate is a decent human being whose actions do not cause any upset for digital creators who are also decent human beings. Yes, their actions would shock and anger the typical corporate executive. But they do not deserve our consideration. If a pirate is so poor that they cannot even buy a $10 book without suffering economic hardship, then their stance is that they can pirate anything they want without paying anyone. If they are rich enough to afford the products they want, they will support the creators with their money. They may first pirate the book or software to try it out, and if they like it, they may then go on to buy a legitimate copy or find another way of supporting the creators. Rather than buying a book from a publisher, knowing that only a small portion of the book’s price goes to the author, they may donate some money to the author directly.

In all of these cases, the goal is to make the world a better place. The world is a better place when a poor person can get the digital products they need without suffering hardship. And the world is a better place when those who are rich enough to support creators do support them.

Legal reform of copyright for the digital age

Clearly there is a problem with the legal system if it tries to enforce immoral laws. As I have suggested, a moral copyright system would make piracy unnecessary. The legal reform is quite simple: Make it a law that a library can offer any digital product to one user at a time without any sort of restriction. No digital publisher or creator should have the right, in any shape or form, to restrict what a library can do with their product as long as they have acquired one legitimate copy of the product for each user.

The current state of digital lending is utterly pathetic because it is the scrooges who are in charge of the laws. From a article:

Publishers put restrictions not just on which ebooks libraries can offer, but how they can offer them. Some publishers only allow for an ebook to be borrowed 26 times before the library has to purchase the license again. Others opt for the license to expire after a year. And still others instead charge libraries significantly more than they do consumers for ebooks.


Nobody who buys an ebook—library, consumer, or otherwise—actually owns it upon purchase. Instead, they purchase a license to access the content. The distinction might seem like a small one, but it has presented publishers with the opportunity to explore new ways of working with libraries in the digital age. And in so doing, it’s caused massive headaches for libraries as they’ve sought to broaden their ebook collections.

Once the law is changed, a Universal Library can be created (something like Steam, but for everything) that for a monthly subscription fee enables its users to enjoy all the music, videos, software, books and scholarly papers they want. When it comes to things like video games and software, they should remain installed on a user’s machine but only a limited number of people should be able to use them at the same time, so that the library is forced to buy more copies to enable more users to use them simultaneously. Ideally the subscription fee should be variable so that needy subscribers can choose to pay a much lower fee. Once the library has purchased a digital product from a publisher, they should have zero relationship with the publisher from that moment on. The fee should only go toward maintaining the library and helping it acquire more products through purchases.

Alternative models

Allowing digital products to be lent out similar to physical products, without any licensing terms involved, is the simplest and most effective model that I know of for creating a situation where decent humans do no wrong to their fellow humans. It is not the only possible model. Today a company could create a Steam alternative that offers all kinds of digital products for a subscription fee just as the Universal Library would. But due to the need to reach licensing deals with every single publisher, their platform will not entirely remove the need for piracy because a. many products will be missing from the platform due to the inability to reach deals with every publisher and b. the overhead involved in paying licensing fees and dealing with publishers will cause the system to be too costly for users. For this reason the piracy scene will still be very necessary even if such a platform existed.

Even if a platform like Amazon’s KindleUnlimited grows to the point that every publisher is forced to put its books on it in order to avoid losses, this will lead to a whole new problem: Amazon will have too much power and will use that power to profit at the expense of both its users, creators and publishers. Therefore I do not foresee a future where content licensing can ever solve the piracy problem. Greedy gatekeepers will always try to extract rent from any content licensing scheme one way or another, making piracy necessary.


Some people have asked me about the Islamic stance on digital piracy. The above can be considered the Islamic stance: common decency from both producers and consumers. It is true that consumers have a moral duty to pay, but that is not the only duty in this situation. Creators and publishers too have a moral duty to freely share their products with those who cannot pay for them. I cannot envision a decent human being who refuses to perform either of these duties. These two moral duties must be balanced; both sides must fulfill their duties.

Publishers should have no right to prevent a Universal Library from being created. Until such a library is created, the ethical pirate’s stance is the proper stance morally: those who are able have a duty to support the creators by paying them for their products, those who cannot pay have the moral right (but not the legal right) to enjoy digital products for free using the informal Universal Library that is today’s digital piracy scene.

Wherever possible, pirates should punish publishers for their greed by supporting creators directly. Publishers are evil when they pretend digital goods are different from physical goods by forcing people to buy a “license” to view the content rather than selling the content, as discussed by the article quoted above. This is what is preventing proper digital libraries from being created. Publishers are actively making the world a worse place just to satisfy their own greed.

Before any progress can be made regarding piracy, publishers and creators must stop being evil. They must allow proper digital libraries to exist so that the needy can pool their resources in order to acquire legitimate copies of the products they need.

Until then, piracy will continue to force these scrooges to do the involuntary charity of sharing their products with the needy for free. Even better, piracy punishes their greed by allowing people to get their products for free while enabling them, the pirates, to restrict their support only to those creators who do deserve support.