Where the State Ends, the Hamster Begins

Monday, May 7, 2018

It’s possible that the hamster reference in the subtitle of Alek Tarkowski and Mirek Filiciak’s chapter on Polish universities takes a little too long to pay off.  I accept responsibility.  The explanation is that Polish access to educational materials has been divided primarily between a state-supported research, publishing, and library ecosystem and a large, legally-contested P2P service called ‘Chomikuj’ or Hamster.  From their chapter.

Chomikuj has walked a complicated line with respect to Polish copyright law. It is a commercial service with a variety of pay models that provide users access to uploaded content—much of which, it is widely understood, is unauthorized content uploaded by users. But the service also complies with notice and takedown requirements in Polish law, removing files targeted by copyright infringement complaints (thereby allowing it to argue for “safe harbor protection” with respect to infringing behavior by users). Polish publishers have generally discounted these steps. In July 2012, members of the Polish Book Chamber brought the service to court on copyright infringement charges. By early 2017, the case had been through several rounds of motions and appeals, and is currently awaiting the outcome of a publisher-filed complaint to the European Commission. A parallel lawsuit by the Polish Filmmakers Association did result in a judgment of contributory infringement against the service, leading to a requirement that Chomikuj.pl actively monitor its service for infringing materials (Dynowski and Baczykowska 2015).

The popularity of the service is clearly fading—peak traffic was in 2012 and 2013, when the site was visited by more than 30 percent of Polish Internet users. But it is still a primary means of accessing media content for many Poles: in February 2016, the site was visited by more than three million people, or 14 percent of Polish Internet users (Wirtualne Media 2016). Nor has enforcement pressure let up. In 2015, Google Search received more than seven million takedown requests for links on Chomikuj.

In educational contexts, chomikuj.pl remains especially significant because it operates as a digital library specializing in Polish-language content. For foreign publications and other media, Polish students have many other options among the top-tier international file sharing sites. But for academic purposes, the linguistic focus is paramount and other services play no significant role….

The Polish language itself remains the most important structural feature of this ecosystem, supporting a parallel world of publishing and access models that operates at a disadvantage in an English-language dominated educational and research culture. As other institutional norms and expectations are imported from Europe and elsewhere into the Polish system, these parallel institutions come under growing pressure. Poland is hardly alone in this respect. Most of the European countries face similar challenges with regard to local language instruction and research cultures. But as a mid-sized linguistic community large enough to support institutional parallelism, Poland faces choices that smaller linguistic communities in Europe do not. The question, for policymakers, is whether existing publishing models and policies empower Polish institutions and students or entrench the disadvantages of the two-tiered model. The question for students, as always, is where to find the materials they need at the lowest possible cost and inconvenience. As usual, there are competing answers, with one set consolidating around open access models, another around commercial databases, and the third, default solution in the complex array of informal sharing and copying among students and faculty themselves.

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