The U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment on Wednesday charging two Russian citizens with operating a massively popular pirated e-book website that was taken down by authorities earlier this month.
Anton Napolsky, 33, and Valeriia Ermakova, 27, were arrested on November 3 in Cordoba, Argentina, at the request of the U.S. government, the Justice Department announced.
The two were charged under seal in late October.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York said the defendants are "not in U.S. custody," declining to say whether they're being extradited to the United States.
The pair face charges of criminal copyright infringement, wire fraud and money laundering for running Z-Library, a website that billed itself as the "world's largest e-book library" with11 million e-books and millions of scientific research articles available for download.
The popular pirated-book platform went offline earlier this month around the time its operators were arrested in Argentina. The Justice Department said nearly 250 domains run by the website have been taken down and seized by the U.S. government. On Reddit, however, some readers reported on Wednesday that Z-Library was still available on the Dark Web.
On its website, Z-Library described itself as a non-profit organization run by volunteers and supported by donations. Defenders say "shadow libraries" such as Z-Library serve an important public good by offering free content, much of it taxpayer funded, that many users can't otherwise access or afford.
But prosecutors say what Z-Library did flouted U.S. copyright laws to the benefit of its operators.
"By making millions of copyrighted works available online for free, while encouraging users to pay for enhanced Z-Library features, Z-Library has robbed individuals of the fruits of their labor — which, for some literary works, represents years or even decades of work — for Napolsky and Ermakova's personal gain," the complaint said.
Z-Library's massive collection of books and articles came from several sources, including users who were encouraged to upload and download books, according to court documents. Online tutorials teach users how to circumvent copyright protections on eBooks such as those on Amazon so they can be uploaded to websites such as Z-Library.
Titles were often uploaded to the site within hours of their publication, Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement. On Reddit, one user wrote that he usually found "(newly) released books on zlib the same day (they go) live on Amazon."
The site allowed users to download a limited number of titles a day without creating an account. A "donation" of $1 or more enabled users to upgrade to "premium" status.
Prosecutors did not say how much money Napolsky and Ermakova earned from the operation. But the complaint says an Amazon account registered by Ermakova placed more than 110 orders, totaling nearly $14,000, since 2019.
Undercover FBI agents investigating Z-Library requested and received via email e-books with their copyright protections removed, according to the criminal complaint.
The scheme has had a "devastating effect" on authors, publishers, authors' estates, independent bookstores, large commercial bookstores and legitimate e-book sellers, the complaint says.
In a statement, Michael Driscoll, the FBI assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office, said, "Intellectual property theft crimes deprive their victims of both ingenuity and hard-earned revenue."
Dave Hansen, executive director of Authors Alliance, an organization that helps authors reach a broad readership, said Z-Library's takedown is "not a proud moment for anyone."
"I certainly don't condone illegal behavior, but I think this seizure and press release highlight how broken our copyright system is," Hansen wrote in an email to VOA. "
Noting that the site hosted millions of scientific research articles, many of them taxpayer-funded, he added, "It's sad that for so many years, the issue of access to that research has been deemed too intractable to solve, leaving millions of people around the world who are desperate to learn and build upon that research out in the cold or dependent on sites like Z-Library."
The White House recently ordered all federal agencies to "free, immediate, and equitable access to federally funded research," building on an Obama era initiative that has led to more 8 million research publications becoming publicly accessible.
Editor's note: The story has been updated with comments by the authors' group and additional background information.