Civil Disobedience? The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator

Many ProfHacker readers have probably already read about Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old open-access advocate who committed suicide last week. Swartz was facing federal charges for downloading “nearly the entire [JSTOR] archive.” (Andrew Mytelka provides some links to additional information about the case.) Soon after news of his death began to spread, scholars began posting online PDFs of their work and using Twitter to share the links, adding the hashtag #PDFtribute (and the site is a collection of those Tweets with their associated links).

Now, via Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica, we learn of the “Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator,” described by its creators at the ArchiveTeam web site as

a tiny bit of civil disobedience, presented to you in clicktivism form. By running this bookmarklet (which you should not do if you are not comfortable potentially violating terms of service), you will visit JSTOR, a keeper of academic articles, be presented with a random paper, and will download a single paper from the site. You will have to click a terms of service agreement agreeing to not share the document you are reading, yet you will then download it and uploaded to another server. It will also ask for a message of memorial about Aaron. We will be gathering your messages of memorial and rememberance of Aaron to put up soon.

The above description makes no mention of something found in Farivar’s account: that the only articles “liberated” from JSTOR by this method are ones already in the public domain. It’s worth noting that in September of 2011 — a couple of months after Swartz was first charged — JSTOR “made journal content…published prior to 1923 in the United States and prior to 1870 elsewhere freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world.” I emailed the team who created this tool to ask them about this, and they responded with this statement:

The JSTOR Liberator Bookmarklet was created in 2011 soon after the indictment of Aaron Swartz. It worked very efficiently to do its job, which was to go into JSTOR and get around a reading of their onerous Terms of Service by allowing an individual to download the PDF using human means, while then automating the later upload to our servers to later distribute. It was, as it is now, primarily to prove a point and show how silly and inscrutable the Terms of Service of a company like JSTOR is.

We chose not to deploy the Bookmarklet then because we later believed it had potential to harm Aaron Swartz’s defense in his federal case. The Prosecutorial zeal on the parts of Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann that is coming to light in recent days shows our assumption was likely correct.

Upon Aaron’s death, we saw no reason to keep the Bookmarklet hidden and brought it out. JSTOR has modified, weaved, and woven new rules buried in paragraph after paragraph that indicate that you may now duplicate public domain documents at their pleasure, with forced attribution to them and giving it a JSTOR brand name, “Early Journal Content”. Regardless, you are still forced to click through a terms of service agreement to access the public domain documents, so the bookmarklet still worked fine. JSTOR will continue to wear the fig leaf of claiming they’ve made things open but it’s at best a parroting of what “free” means in most any concept, to try and weather this storm of bad publicity.

Nerds and activists will point out much of JSTOR’s bounty has already been distributed and plundered by various groups. There’s no disagreement here about that. What the site is, in fact, is a differently delivered payload: a poetic thought exercise in the worldview that Aaron showed in his outlook. For some people, the fear of violating a terms of service, even one as small as this, now holds a certain weight as, in some small way, it led to a man’s suicide. Perhaps someone will pause before clicking, consider their actions, worry about the consequences. The fact that is even the case is a small part of the real message of the site: that Aaron was a tireless crusader in causes of openness, freedom and expression, and when he crossed boundaries, each was done without thought to profit or to harm but to leave the world better than he had found it. Which he has.

To that end, the site continues to function perfectly.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this project. At first blush, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that intellectual property in the public domain should be unencumbered with terms-of-service legalese that restrict what users can do with it. However, this assertion ignores 2 important facts: first, this content doesn’t digitize itself, and digitization costs money; and second, adding metadata and providing a user-friendly interface for browsing and searching are, in fact, important services provided by JSTOR (and doing those things also costs money). And finally, JSTOR is not the first name that comes to mind when I think of information providers who exploit the users trying to access their content; that honor belongs to Elsevier.

How about you? What are your thoughts regarding the “JSTOR Liberator” bookmarklet? Let us know in the comments.

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