Access or Theft?

As reported last week internet activist Aaron Schwartz “was charged … with sneaking into a computer closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and making unauthorized downloads of more than four million journal articles” from JSTOR. While there is a long list of charges (a copy of the 15 page indictment from the US District Court can be found here), the charge that has generated the most online debate is “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2).

Academic libraries pay for access to JSTOR – an enormous repository of full-text journals. The Boston Globe reports that a subscription to JSTOR can cost a university up to $50,000 a year. It is not widely available outside of the academy. As a Harvard student Schwartz has free access to JSTOR via the Harvard library. As the author of the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto“, it appears that Schwartz’s download at MIT was designed to protest the fact that this material was not free for everyone. Schwartz wrote in 2008:

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Online discussion has focussed the general unavailability of this content and whether downloading too many articles is actually wrong enough to justify charges that carry a maximum of 35 years in prison. This is a curious story, where ultimately the hard drives of downloaded content were never distributed and JSTOR itself decided not to peruse any action once the content was secured.

As an academic librarian I support the open access movement for scholarly communications. There is a lot of work to be done and the recent Calgary Statement issued by the Council of Canadian Academic Law Library Directors is a good start to what will be a slow moving process. I however can’t see how Schwartz and his supporters are helping the cause of access at all. There seems to be a wilfully naive attitude to the questions of how all these articles actually were collected into a database and the important role that publishers and libraries play in the process of making this scholarly content available.


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