An online activist has been indicted in Boston on charges that he used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer networks to steal more than four million documents from JSTOR, a non-profit that provides online access to academic journals for a subscriber or individual user fee, with the intention of distributing the documents to one or more file-sharing sites.
The activist, Aaron Swartz, is in part known as a co-founder of the group Demand Progress, which has been working overtime in recent weeks spreading inaccuracies about the PROTECT-IP Act.
The charges against Swartz enumerated in the indictment by the United States District Court in the District of Massachusetts include wire fraud, computer fraud, and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. The specifics include breaking into a restricted computer wiring closet at MIT, accessing MIT’s network with authorization from a switch within that closet, downloading significant portions of the JSTOR archive, and using a fictitious username, throwaway email address and a program designed to “sidestep or confuse JSTOR’s efforts to prevent this behavior”. The indictment can be viewed on a New York Times blog post here.
To all of this, Demand Progress’s response is that the indictment is “senseless” and, according to the organization’s Executive Director David Segal, is like “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
Really? It is in fact nothing like checking out books at the library. Checking out books at the library involves walking through the front door (or legitimately signing on online) and presenting a library card (or legitimate online credentials). This is more like sneaking through a library window in the middle of the night and making off with the entire non-fiction section.
In case there was any question about whether even Mr. Swartz knew his alleged actions were wrong, the indictment chronicles the extensive efforts he allegedly took to circumvent efforts by both JSTOR and MIT to block his computer’s access to the service; reveals that cameras set up in the restricted area where the computer closet was housed recorded him entering and exiting with a bicycle helmet held in front of his face; and states that he fled from campus police attempting to question him.
As the indictment points out, JSTOR – a non-profit organization - has invested millions of dollars in legally obtaining permission to digitize the journal articles that it makes available as part of its service. They work with publishers who have, on their end, invested in research, writing, editing, peer review, marketing and packaging of these journal articles. The articles are made available for free to users who access them at subscribing institutions.
If the allegations prove true, the episode is revealing in numerous respects. First, of the mindset of those who engage in intellectual property theft. The indictment states that Swartz “intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through one or more file-sharing sites.” Sound familiar? This is no different than those who steal other kinds of copyrighted works and monetize them through advertising or through subscription fees, only in this instance the victims are a non-profit and educational institution.
These individuals are not “setting information free” as they like to proclaim. And they are not “removing the middlemen.” They are flat out stealing the work of others and using it to prop up their own commercial endeavors. It is the perfect example of the unapologetic belief that what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine, and if I can get some venture capitalist to cash me out for millions or billions of dollars based on the traffic a library comprised of someone else’s lifetime of work has generated to my site, so much the better.
As for the self-described public advocacy organization Demand Progress, this episode is also instructive. The misleading response to District Court charges perhaps serves the interest of their supporters, but certainly not the public. Consider: What JSTOR has done by investing in, developing, publishing and accumulating this research in a searchable form, and what MIT has done by paying license fees for the subscription, ensures there is more research, more analysis, and more scientific, peer-reviewed information available to benefit all of us. JSTOR’s service provides universities and research libraries a more cost effective way to access these journals. Purchasing and maintaining physical copies of the same information would likely be cost prohibitive for many institutions, so the very purpose of JSTOR is to expand access. That is the sort of progress we should all be demanding.