The right to access?

As many of you might be aware, on Jan. 11 computer programmer Aaron Schwartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. The reasons aren’t entirely known—he had publicly spoken of suffering from depression for years, and he was facing a legal battle that would see him potentially owing $1 million in fines and 35 years in jail—for stealing academic papers from JSTOR through Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) servers with the aim to make them freely available on the Internet.

Schwartz was a computer prodigy. By the age of 14 he was a co-author of RSS 1.0. Through his company, Infogami, which he merged with Reddit, he became a co-owner of Reddit. He has also been involved with Creative Commons since its beginning (again, when he was a young teenager). But it was through prosecutions for setting up a laptop in a computer closet at MIT to download 4.8 million JSTOR articles (many of which were not under copyright) that most speculate prompted his suicide. Schwartz was a leading proponent for digital rights and it was with DemandProgress, the digital rights group Schwartz founded, that he played a key role in defeating SOPA/PIPA in 2012. DemandProgress, called Schwartz’s indictment as “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

Trying to check out those books and distribute them to millions of others might be the more precise analogy, yes, but still. Internet speculation is pointing to the Department of Justice’s desperate desire to make an example of Schwartz. No one should have been driven to such desperation for what was a victimless crime. The biggest problem is that the law hasn’t caught up with the digital age. The articles on JSTOR relate to research and advancement of human knowledge. Should this material be available for free? Schwartz wasn’t trying to make money off of the material—this isn’t even some kid attempting to pirate movies or music for sharing. His motivation was for open access to knowledge, which is an essential for a progressive, healthy society. As of writing, media reports on the story tend to be a vague on the legalities and some details—JSTOR did drop charges against Schwartz and some reports say that MIT did as well (but many news outlets reported that they had not dropped the charges). It appears that the Justice Department is the entity that was most invested in prosecuting Schwartz.

As VIU students, we have free access to databases such as JSTOR for the tenure of our education. When we graduate, however, we lose our library privileges—even with the purchase of a relatively cheap alumni library card, we cannot have access to all of the digital academic journals and databases that we could as students. This strikes me as incredibly frustrating—just as a person has gained the necessary skills to interpret research and conduct research of their own, unless they have membership in an institution with these resources, the only option is to pay a fee for access—which as far as I could tell from poking around JSTOR’s website would add up quite quickly for anyone who needed to look at many articles. I tried accessing articles on the JSTOR website (without going through my VIU account). If you don’t have access through an institution, it costs $10, $12, (per article or journal issue—this isn’t entirely clear) and so on. It seems variant depending on the journal.

To throw in a twist, on Jan. 8 JSTOR announced an expansion of their recent pilot project “Register and Read” that would allow anyone to set up an account and access three new articles online from a select set of journals every 14 days. Articles would appear on a user’s “bookshelf” on the site, and after 14 days would disappear and allow the user to shelve new articles. According to JSTOR’s website, about 40 percent of the articles available through this program can be downloaded and kept.

But should all academic journals be available to anyone who wishes to pursue research? In these early decades of the Internet, this is such a difficult question to answer. On one hand, as a student of publishing and someone who plans to enter into that field, I understand the need for a fee-based system and the work that goes into producing published works (those who produce the material should be compensated). This is the sort of web material that could not generate compensation by selling ad space. But as a student and as a life-long learner, I want access to this material—but to access very much of it is prohibitively expensive, or inconvenient.

Schwartz was a pioneer for Internet rights and open access—and it’s a shame that being a pioneer is what ultimately proved his downfall. The way I see it, what he did was not selfish, but it was stealing—under current law.

In a memorial post at BoingBoing.net, Cory Doctorow affectionately refers to Schwartz as a “full-time, uncompromising, reckless, and delightful shit-disturber.” Those are the qualities that push our limits, force us to question the status quo, and allow us to come up with creative solutions to society’s problems. So I say that this is a good thing—we need more of it, and it’s a shame that Schwartz can’t continue to provide it. It’s time for others to take up the mantle of “shit disturber” in Schwartz’s memory. But perhaps try to keep it legal.

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