Drawing the line between copyright and free knowledge

As a college student, I have used JSTOR, the online database filled with thousands of scholarly articles, while working on a number of research papers. JSTOR's stated mission is to "expand access to scholarly content around the world and to preserve it for future generations."

As a society, we grow through gaining knowledge and experience. Providing as much information as possible to the masses can do nothing but help us develop as individuals and as a group.

In 2011, JSTOR filed suit against Internet developer and activist Aaron Swartz for downloading thousands of articles from their databases with the intention of distributing them online for free.

Swartz, who helped develop the blogging software we call the RSS feed and also helped to found the link aggregator and social network Reddit, opposed JSTOR's policy of using its fees to compensate publishers instead of authors for their work as well as the organization charging a fee for access to the information at all.

JSTOR later dropped the charges against Swartz, although the U.S. attorney's office continued to pursue the charges. Swartz faced 35 years in jail and a fine of $1 million.

On Jan. 11, Swartz was found dead, apparently by his own hand.

In response to the news, JSTOR issued a statement expressing their condolences and reiterating their commitment to spreading knowledge. They continued to defend their response to Swartz's hacking, citing concerns about the integrity of the scholarship: "We must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of (scholarly) content."

Swartz's family maintains that the punishment he faced was disproportionate to his crimes and that his death was a result of a "criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

How do we strike a balance between disseminating knowledge to the masses and retaining copyrights?

Not everyone has the inclination to read scholarly articles, but the fact remains that such articles hold valuable knowledge for those who do wish to peruse them. Without affiliations to organizations, JSTOR subscriptions are limited to only certain journals and older articles.

While JSTOR's aim is admirable, it is difficult for those without university or library affiliations to gain access to the database even with their new "Register to Read" program.

Where do we draw the line between free knowledge and stealing?

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig made a statement on Tumblr that the government continually described the articles that Swartz took as worth millons of dollars, suggesting that "his aim must have been to profit from his crime."

According to Lessig, it is exceedingly difficult to make a profit off of scholarly articles. Even Swartz's statements fly in the face of his prosecution: He simply wanted to widen access to preeminent scholars.

The entire debacle is tragic. A life has been lost, and we can only speculate as to why.

We should use this time not only to offer our condolences to Swartz's family and friends, but to inquire in his name: How do we allow widespread access to knowledge and still retain rights to intellectual property?

Which is more important?


Reach the columnist at baorteg1@asu.edu or follow him at @BrandoBoySP


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