By Pamela Samuelson, SFGate
What was Internet activist Aaron Swartz thinking when he downloaded 4 million articles from JSTOR
(short for journal storage), a digital library of scholarly articles,
in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
of his suicide this month, we will never know for sure, but one
consistent theme ran through his short but brilliant career: The
Internet provides amazing opportunities to open more access to
knowledge. And he wanted to help that process.
He did so through
his work on the RSS (Rich Site Summary) Web-syndication protocol,
building essential technology for the copyright open-licensing project,
Creative Commons, and his activism against the Stop Online Piracy Act,
which would have authorized blocking access to Internet sites that were
alleged to be hosting infringing materials.
He faced quite a
hurdle in opening access to academic works: For almost all academic and
scientific research, the public is asked to pay for it essentially
twice. First, when government agencies or public universities sponsor
the research, and a second time, when users must pay for access to the
article, often via subscribing to a journal. Subscription fees often
amount to tens of thousands of dollars. And most of those journals do
not pay the authors; instead, they keep the fees as profits.
are many good reasons to think that access to the articles that Swartz
downloaded should be more open than they were. First, many JSTOR
articles were funded through research grants from governments and
foundations. Swartz might have thought the public already had paid for
much of this once and shouldn’t have to pay again.
Second, even those articles not directly funded by public monies were written mostly by university
professors (often at publicly funded institutions) whose salaries
covered the costs of their creation. These authors were typically paid
nothing for transferring rights to the publishers and get nothing
Third, the JSTOR articles were written by scholars to
advance knowledge. If Creative Commons had been in existence when the
overwhelming majority of these articles were written (that is, before
2002), their scholar authors might well have chosen to make them
available on open-access license terms, as many do today. Swartz could
have thought this option should apply retroactively.
the articles were first published many years ago, whatever commercial
value they had when hot off the presses has long since dissipated.
Publishers already have recouped their investments by publishing the
journals, so restricting access to them now seems like a bad idea.
what was valuable in the articles was the knowledge they contained. As a
society, we want wider access to that knowledge because it will lead to
further creative work and learning. As an Internet activist and
visionary, Swartz understood the Internet’s potential to radically
reduce the costs of providing global access to knowledge – so long as
unnecessary restrictions do not stand in the way.
provided an important service to academic and other research communities
by scanning back issues of journals and offering subscriptions to
research institutions so that students, professors and other members of
research communities can access electronically the literature of their
fields. But this storehouse of knowledge is not as openly available as
Swartz apparently thought it should be.
Under vague wire-fraud
and computer-abuse laws, federal prosecutors decided to charge him with
13 felony offenses. They insisted that Swartz plead guilty to all
charges and do some time in jail. Otherwise, they would proceed to trial
and seek at least seven years in prison. This course of action is
difficult to understand, given that JSTOR had asked federal prosecutors
to drop the charges against Swartz after he gave back the downloaded
material, paid some compensation and apologized.
There was a time
when access to knowledge was promoted through grants of copyrights to
authors who typically transferred them to publishers. Now copyright has
become the single most serious impediment to access to knowledge.
Academic authors, among others, should use the Internet as a medium
through which access to knowledge can be greatly expanded. They should
choose open-access options for scholarly work, press JSTOR and other
publishers to make more of their backlist materials available and
support open-access repositories and the creation of a Digital Public Library of America through which more than just public-domain materials can be made available.
showed poor judgment when he downloaded JSTOR articles, but his mission
to promote broader access to knowledge remains a worthy goal.