Pirate Bay Comes to Academia

In recent years, the digital and network revolutions have smashed through the cost floor of information and entertainment media, rendered business models based on digital copyright as obsolete as the buggy whip, and put a serious hurt on digital content industries like music and movies.

As Cory Doctorow once wrote, the computer is a machine for copying bits, and a business model that depends on stopping people from copying bits is doomed to failure.  Even though Copyright Nazis like Sting have praised China’s totalitarian censorship as a model for enforcing the DRM Curtain that Big Content wants to impose on the world, the Chinese state can’t even stop people visiting Falun Gong websites in the heart of Beijing.

The one area that seems to have lagged behind the most, in experiencing the effects of this revolution, is academic publishing. Electronic textbooks are locked behind self-destruct paywalls, so that a text you “buy” at an egregiously unreasonable price only remains readable for a short period of time.

Digital academic journal indexes like JSTOR also operate behind paywalls that would put Rupert Murdoch to shame.  Either you pay a high subscription fee to access all the indexed journals, or you pay an enormous ($20 or more) fee for each article PDF.

Scholarly books published with university imprints typically get a 500% or 1000% markup over books of comparable size from non-academic publishers.  And I’m sure anyone who’s been in the belly of the beast is familiar with the mutual logrolling racket by which instructors assign each other’s texts to cash-strapped students.

Fortunately — wonderfully! — this is about to change.  This last bastion of Copyright Nazism is under siege.

Most grad students and independent scholars probably have a few friends with JSTOR or SSRN memberships who obtain articles on request, and liberate PDFs from behind paywalls for their personal network of friends.  I know I’ve obtained needed articles in this way for my own research, both private and in my capacity as C4SS Research Associate.

According to TorrentFreak, a new service called LibraryPirate is likewise liberating digital e-textbooks from DRM-enforced profiteering by textbook monopolists.  If you take the price of an e-book and pay it to LibraryPirate instead, they will buy it, strip it of DRM, and then give it to you in a format that will last forever — not to mention that you can also distribute at will via torrent download sites.

Reddit founder Aaron Swartz was arrested back in July for excessive JSTOR downloads. The specifics are unclear.  Swartz denied any intent to distribute the material, although he had used an automated script to download two million articles.  He had previously posted a description of his research on his online bio, which spoke of performing statistical analysis on an enormous number of articles to break down their funding sources.

But Swartz — to his credit, in my opinion — clearly advocates download with intent to distribute. He complains, in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, that “The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”

To those who say, “I agree … but what can we do?” he responds, “we can fight back”:

“Those with access to these resources … 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 … 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 ….

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

To those who call that stealing, he says:  “Sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy. …  There is no justice in following unjust laws.”

Right on!

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