Describing Public Domain Works As 'Pirated' And 'Illegal' Is Bad For Everyone

from the stop-that dept

Yahoo Tech has an interesting column about an "art project" in Germany, where a bunch of folks are printing out 250,000 academic papers from JSTOR, which they're describing as the JSTOR Pirate Headquarters. Of course, as I'm sure you know, JSTOR -- the somewhat controversial organization that hosts thousands of academic articles behind a massively high paywall -- was a central player in the Aaron Swartz saga.

It was JSTOR's collection that Aaron was caught downloading, though it was never entirely clear what he was going to do with it. Soon after Aaron's arrest, a guy by the name of Greg Maxwell got some attention by releasing 33GB of JSTOR scientific papers to the Pirate Bay. While he'd considered doing so before, he had held off out of concern for how JSTOR might react. But the simple fact was that all of the papers he released were public domain papers, meaning that JSTOR would have no right to complain. In fact, a few months later, JSTOR itself agreed to make all its public domain materials free. JSTOR freely admits that Maxwell's decision influenced the move, but that they had been planning to do something like this anyway.

So, back to Germany and the "JSTOR Pirate Headquarters." As the Yahoo story notes, the folks there were inspired by the Swartz story to try to create some sort of civil disobedience act, with the initial plan being to print out the documents Swartz downloaded -- but, of course, that database has long since gone away. Instead, they found Maxwell's torrent, and decided to print that out. The problem is that throughout the story, everyone seems to pretend that this is some sort of illegal act of piracy. Beyond the fact that they call it the JSTOR Pirate Headquarters, the article by Rob Walker opens this way:
For several days now, five printers in Düsseldorf, Germany, have been pumping out illegally-downloaded articles from JSTOR, the digital library of academic journals.
Except they're not illegally downloaded. They're public domain, which makes them perfectly legal to download.

Then Walker claims:
If you’re in the area, you can stop by and browse this stuff – which would cost you something like $353,229 to buy from JSTOR itself.
Except that's not true either, because JSTOR made the same documents free.

And it appears the guy behind the project doesn't realize this either:
The JSTOR Pirate Headquarters, then, exists partly as a tribute to Swartz, and partly as a provocation, explains its overseer, the artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The material being printed consists of “arcane scientific papers that are hundreds of years out of copyright,” he tells me via email. “Yet JSTOR is firewalling & profiting from this stuff, which should be available to everyone at no cost.”
Again, those works have already been freed, legally, both by Maxwell and by JSTOR. So while this protest may have some symbolic value, to claim that these works are locked up and that this is some sort of illegal activity is just wrong. Later in the article, they discuss the possibility that JSTOR might do something:
There has been, to date, no word from JSTOR. And realistically, this mass of paper is not a material threat to its business — even if it does make material an argument about the nature of that business.

“The legal issue is interesting. Is printing material without the intent to distribute it really illegal?” Goldsmith asks. “Is this useless intellectual property really worth going to the mat for?
Except, not only is this not a material threat to its business, it's not a threat to anything. These works are all completely legal, in the public domain and totally freely available from a variety of sources including JSTOR. Here, go ahead and check it out.

That's not to say there aren't other issues with JSTOR. Its regular paywall is ridiculously high, and often stands in the way of sharing important academic knowledge (frequently paid for by the public). And there are plenty of non-public domain works JSTOR should consider freeing up as well -- such as this 80 year old article on why we should do away with copyright and patent laws altogether. It's 21 pages and JSTOR wants $43 for it, which seems rather ironic, since the author himself, Arnold Plant, believes that locking up such works with intellectual property is a mistake.

So, I can recognize the desire to do something that appears to be civil disobedience to stand up against JSTOR. But the JSTOR Pirate Headquarters, unfortunately, only contributes misinformation to the situation, implying that freely available public domain works are somehow illegal or subversive. It appears this is the opposite of the message they want to send, so it's unfortunate that the message that is getting out is that it's illegal to share public domain works. Similarly, shame on Yahoo Tech and its reporter, who should be willing to do the most basic of fact checking to understand the very premise of the article is hogwash. Yahoo Tech is trying to position itself as a tech publication for a more mainstream audience, and if it believes the way to do that is to spread misinformation, that's unfortunate.

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  1. identicon
    Thrudd, 10 Apr 2014 @ 1:14pm

    Re: Illegally downloaded public domain papers

    I wa with you untill that last bit. You jumped from tangible aka books in bookstore to intangible aka data on a server.

    The model falls apart and they KNEW they were in the wrong but did not do anything untill somebody called thgem out in it. Then it is all, its all open and free now, we were planning to do this all along.

    It reeks like a week old fish wrapped in Prenda papers.

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