Information wants to be free…but it ain’t.

Take a look at this NYT times article covering the criminal allegations against Aaron Swartz. Without doubt, many of you would agree that hacking in to a secure computer network is a criminal act. But what about downloading millions of documents, documents that are made available for free to students at M.I.T. and other institutions of higher learning? Whats so wrong with that? Let us examine this statement, “Institutions like colleges and libraries pay for access to JSTOR, which is then available free to their users.” What is missing here is an explanation of the license agreement that is typically signed between the institution (i.e. M.I.T.) and the information vendor (i.e. JSTOR). The content that JSTOR offers is provided to users affiliated with the institution that signs the license. In the license, there is language that explicitly states the terms of use that are acceptable under the agreement entered by both parties. Acceptable use often qualifies as use by an individual for academic or professional reasons. Here is where the problem arises. It’s really hard to argue that an individual needs to download millions of articles for personal use. And as such, Aaron’s actions would be in violation of the license, even if he had accessed the network legally.

Current copyright law does not account for models of open access. In addition, copyright laws favor the commercialization of information, allowing strict lines to be drawn between owners of information and users of information. Most libraries support open access, and at its core, what Aaron is fighting for is worthy and just. But one must realize that while information wants to be free, it’s not.



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July 2011
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