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How piracy is forcing industry transformation

Phil LeahyBy Phil Leahy
Category - Blog

Tuesday 4th September 2018

The thorny issue of piracy is creating a real sea change in our industry.

Perhaps not for all the obvious reasons and without being overtly provocative, the act of digital piracy (where Sci-Hub is often referenced as the piracy pioneer) can be seen positively for the actions now being taken to combat the issue.

The Sci-Hub site (originally registered in Russia and subsequently chased around the internet by a series of lawsuits) enables access to over 58 million published academic works, and it is unwittingly prompting an industry revolution which has been compared to Napster and what that did for the music industry.

We’re absolutely not advocating the concept or act of piracy – but what it is doing is forcing the publishing and library communities to really look at the true issues around intellectual property and access to digital content.

User journey at the source of the issue

Where vulnerabilities are being uncovered leading to the illegal sharing of published material, so too has the subject of user experience been brought to the fore.

It’s a complex issue: where do you draw the line between open access material which can be used for collaboration, furthering of research and debate in many fields; and sharing someone else’s hard work, so potentially removing their right to be paid for what they produce?

The RA21 group, established initially to combat piracy, has collectively accepted that the reasons users choose to access illegal sites can often be because it is just easier. The fact that their institution may be a subscriber to the content becomes devalued if the process of access is counter-intuitive – dissatisfaction and frustration increases exponentially with every extra click.

In today’s maturing digital world – we now expect ease of access as a given. Numerous steps or layers of authentication increases the likelihood that a user will seek out a site where information can be viewed without such barriers. In today’s fast-paced technology-led world we demand more – speed and ease of access without security compromise is the holy grail, but it’s taking time to get there and too often it involves too many clicks.

Industry debates

We attended a National Information Standard Organization (NISO) event in Baltimore in May this year where these issues were hotly debated by an audience made up mostly of librarian representatives. The ‘Digital Libraries: Authentication, Access & Security for Information Resources’ event was designed to look at the complexities relating to managing access to subscribed resources.

The discussion highlighted strongly the conflicting views on user privacy in the US libraries and publishing communities which have led to passionate debate. This is less the case in the UK market where we have seen collaboration between the two sectors with SAML and Shibboleth widely used and accepted for over ten years.

OpenAthens simplifying the user journey    

At OpenAthens we’re working on improving the user journey in a number of ways – we know this is at least part of the answer to combatting the piracy sites. If access is simple, fast and in the user’s interests, the likelihood that piracy sites will be used will diminish.

We’re currently beta testing a new organizational discovery tool with publishers which will become freely available later this year. Called ‘Wayfinder’, the product is simple for publishers to deploy and streamlines the user journey which will encourage and facilitate their access to published works via legitimate routes.

Encouraging consistency and ease of access can benefit every industry stakeholder and will remove the conflicting interests over time without compromising the motivation of user, library or publisher.

Header image: Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash


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