Copyright Alliance Takes On The Aaron Swartz Case With A Post Full Of Bad Analogies

from the again-with-the-'copying-is-exactly-like-stealing'? dept

As the Aaron Swartz saga continues to play out and more information rolls in, the question has been raised as to why no allegations of copyright infringement have surfaced. All this discussion of "theft," especially in relation to digital "goods" usually brings the copyright patrol right up to the virtual doorstep in less time than it takes to say "fair use."

Well, our wishes have been granted (apparently). Copyright Alliance has posted its take on the situation, and it's bringing all the tried-and-patently-false analogies it could fit into a misguided attack post -- a post that still somehow manages to be about "copyright" without actually uttering the word "copyright."

Let's get started. After running the down the list of charges, Sandra Aistars takes on Demand Progress' now-famous response to the indictment, in which Executive Director David Segal compared Swartz's actions to "allegedly checking out too many books from 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.

Really? It is in fact nothing like making off with the entire non-fiction section. Even the "sneaking in through the library window" analogy is bad. Swartz accessed these documents from a university licensed to access the JSTOR system. This is more like Swartz walking through the front door and making copies of everything on the shelves and replacing everything exactly where he found it so that other patrons (and certain domineering librarians) would have no trouble finding what they needed.

Aistars then goes on to discuss the troubling aspects (as she sees it) of Swartz's actions, especially in relation to his work with Demand Progress:

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.

Oh, but it is different. For starters, these digitized journal articles are locked up and provided only to certain members of the public at extremely high prices. Considering that the oft-stated purpose of copyright is to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts," it makes absolutely no sense to keep these valuable works tied up behind academic paywalls.

The other difference is that freeing these documents would not have been done for a profit, but rather to spread this wealth of information for the benefit of many, rather than keeping it in the hands of the few holding the keys.

The next part of her argument is ludicrous speculation, especially as Aistars wanders away from Swartz and begins attacking "infringers" as a whole:

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.

But nothing has been stolen. The university still has all its documents. So do the gatekeepers. To assume Swartz was looking to profit from this interaction is to assign him a motive that fits your particular agenda, and furthermore, the only reason Aistars assumes this is because she assumes this of all infringers. In the Copyright Alliance view of the world, people only infringe for profit. This narrow view extends to the very creative artists Copyright Alliance claims to represent, who apparently only create in order to make money.

She follows this assumption up with claims that stray even further from reality, suggesting that to make this information "free" would undermine JSTOR's efforts and that, without JSTOR's stranglehold on academic documents, further academic research would slow considerably, if not come to a complete halt:

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.

I'm sorry but I'm not able to follow that money trail. JSTOR scans documents and sells them to others. Almost all writing for these published documents is done for free. If it's already being done for free, how does freely distributing this information remove the impetus to do more? Add to that the fact that most research is government-funded, and it looks like JSTOR's only true purpose is to stand between the public and the research they didn't actually "invest" in. It's just another intellectual monopoly dressed up in an educator's costume.

If you read Aistar's post, you'll notice that copyright infringement is never mentioned specifically, but the arguments remain the same, despite the specifics of Swartz's indictment. All the old favorites make an appearance: If someone copies something, it's as good as being gone forever. People only copy to profit from it. If this copying is unchecked, no one will have a reason to make originals, etc. The dance around the term "copyright" is delicate, but the partners still look the same.


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jul 2011 @ 2:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Motivation

    @Richard

    Didn't you say something like institutions commission this activity to add to its prestige? If they're not getting paid, I can only infer that there is some value to the institution to have articles by its scholars included in the database. I presume the institutions themselves submit the articles to JSTOR, so something must be in it for them?

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