Just about Anything You Want

Ben Jackson

  • The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz by Aaron Swartz
    Verso, 368 pp, £15.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 496 6

In January 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested for downloading 4.8 million academic articles from the digital archive JSTOR, using a laptop hidden in a broom cupboard on the MIT campus. He was 24, and already a respected and influential computer programmer. As a teenager, he had helped develop RSS, a syndication format that led to the explosion in popularity of blogging, and Markdown, an easy to use tool that converted text to HTML. He wrote the code for the Creative Commons licence, which helped distribute work on the internet more freely than traditional copyright would permit. He was also a successful entrepreneur. He could easily have carried on working in the tech industry, where people like him can make millions, but instead he became a political activist, and that’s how he got in trouble. The JSTOR episode led to his facing four felony counts, with a maximum sentence of 35 years; two years after his arrest, he hanged himself with his belt in his Brooklyn apartment.

As the prosecutors saw it, Swartz had used MIT’s network to ‘steal’ papers from JSTOR, but The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of his essays and blog posts written between the ages of 14 and 25, makes clear that Swartz thought this was ridiculous. ‘Downloading isn’t stealing,’ he wrote when he was 17. ‘If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it.’ It’s easy to see his point, but if I download a book or film, haven’t I robbed the artists of a sale? Swartz said this too was nonsense. Bad reviews, earthquakes, girlfriends/boyfriends: arguably all of these reduce potential sales, either by putting us off the work or simply by taking up our time or resources. If we’re going to ban downloading because it reduces potential sales, we could argue that sex should be banned on similar grounds. Most people will see that as a stretch, but Swartz makes the case, more plausibly, about the use of libraries.

Swartz accepted that if you give people the right to profit from their creative work then creative work is thereby encouraged. But, he believed, this doesn’t really apply to academic papers. Journals don’t pay royalties; academics are paid through university salaries and grants. If you’re hurting anyone by downloading articles without paying, it isn’t the people doing the work; it’s publishers like Elsevier and Sage and archives like JSTOR, which don’t produce any of the content and don’t pay researchers or peer reviewers. And since academic research is often funded with public money, isn’t it a bit rich to ask people to pay a second time for the privilege of reading the results? It costs money, of course, to digitise an academic journal and put it online, and to maintain it in a usable form. Even old articles that are out of copyright have to be scanned, uploaded, proofread and made searchable. Physical journals have to be printed and distributed. Peer reviewers and the editorial boards of journals may not be paid, but designers, typesetters and copy editors are. Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher of journals, employs 16,000 editors. Still, no matter how generously you spin it, the numbers tell their own story: in 2015, Elsevier reported profits of £760 million on revenue of just over £2 billion – that’s a suspiciously juicy 37 per cent margin in a world that is supposed to be squeezing publishers from all sides (for comparison, Apple, which is notorious for its large profit margins, last year posted the largest profits in corporate history with a margin of 23 per cent).

Swartz was annoyed by this, but what bothered him more was that these fees prevented people who aren’t rich, or at well-funded universities, from accessing academic research. Without a subscription, you can be forced to pay more than $30 per paper. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organisation, and has done good work to broaden access to research – in 2006, for example, it made its content free to institutions in Africa – but it still charges subscription fees to most institutions. In 2012, Harvard University Library said it could no longer afford the fees it was paying for academic journals, and encouraged the university’s academics to publish in open access journals and resign from publications that charge for subscriptions. ‘If Harvard can’t afford to purchase all the journals their researchers need, what hope do the rest of us have?’ David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, asked the Guardian.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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