Open access to academic publications, possibility or pipe dream?

File photo. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (bjaglin / Flickr)

The suicide of social justice activist and programming prodigy Aaron Swartz has brought forward once again the debate over the morality of online file sharing. Mr. Swartz was to face thirty-five years of imprisonment and a million-dollar fine for downloading four million academic articles from the online database JSTOR: a charge likened to that of borrowing too many books from the library. Both JSTOR and the MIT), where Mr. Swartz downloaded the files, did not press charges; rather, the Federal Court sought to prosecute Mr. Swartz. Activists, politicians, and lawmakers have since been trying to make sense of what motivated the Grand Jury to impose such a punishment.

Addressing the application of traditional laws protecting physical property to files shared freely on the Internet during a speech in Washington, D.C. last May, Mr. Swartz asks, “Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a web page over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?”

Mr. Swartz was vehemently opposed to the privatization of knowledge and, in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, urges “students, librarians, scientists” who have access to academic databases not to “keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world.” He continues, “Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it, their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.”

In an interview on Democracy Now!, expert witness Alex Stamos pinpoints the loopholes in MIT’s licensed agreement with JSTOR which enabled the downloads, “MIT decided to license the JSTOR database in a way where access was provided to the entire MIT network without asking for any kind of individual authentication…[additionally] they decided to run an extremely open, unmonitored network…in a method that allow[s] people to jump on from wireless or wired access points all over the campus and take on the identity of somebody affiliated with MIT.”

“Aaron,” Mr Stamos continues, in reference to the incidents leading to the indictment of Mr. Swartz, “wanted to find a place that he could leave his laptop for several days to continue downloading without him having to be there, and so he opened up and went into an unlocked wiring closet and plugged his computer into a switch. That, MIT […] call[ed] trespassing.”

“JSTOR […] noticed a lot of documents were being downloaded from one address at MIT, and so they would cut off that address. Aaron would notice and […] ask the MIT network to give him a new one […] it’s that action [which] the government seems to consider wire fraud or computer fraud.”

Mr. Swartz’s Grand Jury indictment states, “JSTOR’s service is important to research institutions and universities because it can be extraordinarily expensive, in terms of both cost and space, for a research or university library to maintain a comprehensive collection of academic journals. By digitizing extensive, historical collections of journals, JSTOR enables libraries to outsource the journals’ storage, ensures their preservation, and enables authorized users to conduct full-text, cross-disciplinary searches of them. JSTOR has invested millions of dollars in obtaining and digitizing the journal articles that it makes available as part of its service. ”

The question of whether knowledge should be free remains. The majority of research is conducted using government grants which are funded by the taxpayers. Most authors publish their articles so that they may be read and in order to advance their achievements, and both these goals are hindered when the article becomes too expensive. The publishing companies, whose ideal function is distribution, but who often determine and uphold copyrights, who charge a heavy bill to databases such as JSTOR and students alike. Arguably, Aaron Swartz demonstrated that the Internet has rendered this distribution bottleneck unnecessary: the authors of academic articles could easily reserve their own copyrights, upload their articles to the Internet, and thus share their research with the world.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 20, February 5, 2013.