I barely had time to get my arms around the story of Aron Swartz, who was arrested for downloading a ton of stuff off the J-STOR academic papers website and… well, downloading them, see. The FBI says it was criminal, but it’s far from clear; in the words of Demand Progress — whose agenda is not exactly mine, but still, they put it pithily here: “[I]tâ€™s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.â€ It will certainly be an interesting case.
Well what I was saying was I had barely any time to get my arms around it when along came this just now from Gigaom:
A user called Greg Maxwell just uploaded a torrent with 18,592 scientific publications to The Pirate Bay, in what appears to be a protest directed both at the recent indictment of programmer Aaron Swartz for data theft as well as the scientific-publishing model in general. All of the documents of the 32-gigabyte torrent were taken from JSTOR, the academic database thatâ€™s at the center of the case against Swartz. . . .
As I tweeted when I first saw this earlier today, “Things are moving fast. But where are they going?” Maxwell is quoted in Gigaom as follows:
Academic publishing is an odd system â€” the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (theyâ€™re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.
And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.
As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The â€œpublish or perishâ€ pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.â€
Protest part? I get it. Exploited authors? I hear you. Take the law into your own hands and steal a bunch of stuff because you think the business model is dead and you have a better idea?
Well, I’m a lawyer. I’m not going to like that.
Moreover, civil disobedience is a lot less impressive as a bold statement of principle when it’s done anonymously — “Greg Maxwell” appearing not to be a real name. (See comment #3 below.)
Here’s an interesting angle on the story, by the way. Again, same article:
Maxwell goes on to explain that he initially planned to upload the documents to Wikipedia. But then he looked into the legality of the situation, and realized that he could get sued by publishers whoâ€™d claim that merely scanning the documents or adding a watermark gave them new copyright protections.
It would be a real shame if all this comes down to such a gross misapprehension of copyright law. Did “Maxwell” ask anyone about this or did he just “look into the legality” via a crystal ball? You can’t even claim copyright in scans of art or graphic works — notwithstanding claims that you prettied ’em up and all. Scans of documents, much less if they in turn rendered into searchable text (I don’t know if this is the case with JSTOR documents, or if it is the case with some of them) certainly lack the modicum of creativity necessary for copyright protection. Watermark? No, I don’t think so.
It sounds more likely that Maxwell didn’t want to get involved with what Wikipedia would have to say about the whole thing. As I said, I still don’t know where this anarchic trend is going. But it doesn’t say much for the future of copyright — FBI or not.
UPDATE: Aaron Swartz killed himself.