Artificial Scarcity Watch: JSTOR Edition

  • Peter Frase

Apparently Internet activist Aaron Swartz has been indicted for downloading articles from JSTOR, the database of academic journal articles. Note that Swartz had legal access to the database through MIT, he’s just being accused of downloading too many articles.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. There is some stuff in the indictment about him circumventing JSTOR’s attempts to block him, as well as entering an MIT wiring closet without permission in order to attach a computer to the network. But I think this Wired article gets at the heart of it: “In essence, Swartz is accused of felony hacking for violating MIT and JSTOR’s terms of service.” And, I might add, for doing a scaled-up version of what journalists and academics do all the time when they circumvent the JSTOR paywall by emailing articles to each other.

And what’s really scary is the charge of “theft” for copying the documents. This is the kind of thing we’ll see a lot of in the transition to Anti–Star Trek. And the New York Times account even gives us an example of the kind of warped moral reasoning that is required to equate copying copyrighted material with the theft of physical property:

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” said [US Attorney Carmen] Ortiz in the press release.

In other words, “stealing is stealing whether you’re downloading an electronic file without permission or forcibly depriving people of their possessions”. Besides being despicable, this conflation also seems to pose a risk to people’s ability to correctly apprehend the nature of reality. Both this Ars Technica story and the Wired account refer to the fact that Swartz didn’t distribute the articles and that JSTOR “got the documents back” from him. But the latter statement is incomprehensible–how could they have “gotten back” the articles? He just made a copy, JSTOR never lost them in the first place. And what does it even mean to “give back” a digital file?

Hopefully this all blows up in the faces of the prosecutors, as Henry Farrell predicts. Restricting access to academic journals is particularly egregious, since almost nobody involved in their production — the authors, the peer reviewers, most of the editors — gets paid by the companies that own the journals.