I have been alerted to the following article in the Boston Globe about a Cambridge[Mass] Man who has been accused of “stealing” 4 million scientific articles. http://www.boston.com/Boston/metrodesk/2011/07/cambridge-man-accused-hacking-mit-computers-steal-scientific-papers/6SVnqu3Yfo7OIrLQOYSz5M/index.html?comments=all#readerComm
A Cambridge man [Swartz] who was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics is now facing federal charges that he hacked into a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer archive system to steal more than 4 million articles from scientific journals and academic work.
Swartz has advocated for the elimination of barriers to the distribution of information over the Internet, and for the widest public distribution of information in libraries. He is also a co-founder of reddit.com.
However, the organization [JSTOR, the repository and resupplier of these articles] said that “a substantial portion of our publisher partners’ content was downloaded in an unauthorized fashion using the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our participating institutions. The content taken was systematically downloaded using an approach designed to avoid detection by our monitoring systems,” the statement said.
I shan’t reprint the whole article – this might infringe copyright. But I want to comment on one statement in it – and then more generally
The articles and journals listed under the JSTOR system are available through a paid subscription, with some subscriptions costing as much as $50,000. A portion of the fee is in turn paid over to copyright holders.
The subscriptions are paid to the PUBLISHERS. (I do not know whether JSTOR receives the full subscription and then relays some or all to the publisher). The publisher collects subscription revenues from JOURNAL subscriptions which may contain articles where the authors have, and have NOT, transferred copyright. In neither case do the AUTHORS receive any payment.
I do not personally advocate criminal damage, and I am currently reasonably scrupulous to avoid deliberately violating copyright law or the contract that my institution has signed with the publishers. I say “reasonably” because the whole area of law and contracts in this area is so complex that there is no human that understands it in all its details (it varies by country and individual institution). I am also conscious that I am employed here and as such my actions can disadvantage my employer. On two previous occasions my actions, perfectly legal actions, have caused the University to be cut off by publishers. Their server algorithms for “stealing” content had been triggered and reacted automatically. (ASIDE – how many of you are aware that the publisher alone decides what is and what is not legitimate usage of their content? They can just cut the institution off).
I believe that our laws and contracts for access to scientific literature need serious revision. I believe that the current situation is unethical and that decisions are made for reasons that do not help science and frequently hinder it. When one believes that laws must be changed, there are two main ways of doing it.
One is to work within the law and put personal and political pressure on the people and organizations involved. That is now what this blog has evolved to – I still do science, but only half of what I could (I did spend this morning writing code to calculate metabolism – but it only makes much sense if I can text-mine the literature – the literature that has been authored by my world colleagues). I campaign through this blog, through the OKF, and elsewhere and I rely on the viral spread of ideas to those who can be infected by them. Fortunately I live in a country which has established a tradition of free speech over centuries.
The other is deliberate breaking of the law. This is what Swartz has done. The Globe article is unclear but I assume he did not intend to benefit personally from his action. He did it to fight for a principle. (It was unclear whether he advertised his actions before or after). It can reasonably be described as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_disobedience
Ronald Dworkin held that there are three types of civil disobedience:
- “Integrity-based” civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a law he feels is immoral, as in the case of northerners disobeying the fugitive slave laws by refusing to turn over escaped slaves to authorities.
- “Justice-based” civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys laws in order to lay claim to some right denied to him, as when blacks illegally protested during the Civil Rights Movement.
- “Policy-based” civil disobedience occurs when a person breaks the law in order to change a policy (s)he believes is dangerously wrong.
Civil disobedience has a long history in the UK (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn )
… following his 1670 arrest with William Meade. Penn was accused of preaching before a gathering in the street, which Penn had deliberately provoked in order to test the validity of the new law against assembly. Penn pleaded for his right to see a copy of the charges laid against him and the laws he had supposedly broken, but the judge (the Lord Mayor of London) refused – even though this right was guaranteed by the law. Furthermore, the judge directed the jury to come to a verdict without hearing the defence.
Despite heavy pressure from the Lord Mayor to convict Penn, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty”. When invited by the judge to reconsider their verdict and to select a new foreman, they refused and were sent to a cell over several nights to mull over their decision. The Lord Mayor then told the jury, “You shall go together and bring in another verdict, or you shall starve”, and not only had Penn sent to jail in loathsome Newgate Prison (on a charge of contempt of court), but the full jury followed him, and they were additionally fined the equivalent of a year’s wages each. The members of the jury, fighting their case from prison in what became known as Bushel’s Case, managed to win the right for all English juries to be free from the control of judges. This case was one of the more important trials that shaped the future concept of American freedom (see jury nullification) and was a victory for the use of the writ of habeas corpus as a means of freeing those unlawfully detained.
There are many other examples where civil disobedience has had similar effects in changing the law and policies.
In this blog post I am not advocating civil disobedience. But I am pointing out that the strains in the system are becoming larger. There is a growing feeling of inequality not only in scholarly publishing but in the more general access to human knowledge. The battle for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality is critical to our development as a free knowledge-based world community.
I am making predictions, not issuing calls to action. If the feelings of injustices continue to grow I expect that we shall see more of this kind of action. The Net makes it easy to spread ideas, gather support. I am concerned that academic institutions will continue to develop their role as “police for publishers” rather than pressuring for democratic and legal change in the system. I appreciate the difficulties – we grow up in a society where we respect the law and where we are innately bound to work within it. But circumstances change and laws become outdated and counterproductive. Where this is not addressed major fractures are inevitable.
LATER NOTE: Read the comments below as well, which give greater background.