January 15, 2013

Does information want to be free?

Just finished preparing my lecture on alternatives to the IP/government grant science funding regime (slides on Figshare), when I heard that Aaron Schwartz (founder of Reddit, open-source advocate) committed suicide. Will he become a martyr for the open-source movement? Below is his open-source publishing call-to-arms called the Guerilla Open Access manifesto, which I am reposting here with comments (no permissions needed). R.I.P. Aaron.

Aaron Schwartz, as featured in Talking Points Memo (TPM) article.

Information is power [1]. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier [2].

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege [3]. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative [4]. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed [5]. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access [6].

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz
July 2008, Eremo, Italy

[1] Indeed. More specifically: Knowledge is power, but those who control access to that knowledge have the real power.

[2] Here is a link to the academic scientist-lead Elsevier boycott. Interestingly, many of the high-profile open-source journals also charge a publishing fee for authors but keep access free. While this is good for sharing information, it could still exclude citizen scientists from broadcasting information.

[3] The economics of librarianship are vastly different from the market economics of, say, the entertainment industry. Part of this is due to the intangibility of the product, but a comparison between traditional libraries and entertainment markets are a good comparison (the objects of exchange are similarly intangible -- unlike land or objects such as cars, it is hard to discretize, enclose, and assign value to these units). I did not cover this directly in my talk, but it brings up a host of interesting issues.

[4] The mores of downloading (or sharing information in all its forms) are not clear. Is it righful sharing? Or is unrestricted downloading a form of theft? Here is a New York Times story on the Megaupload case, a legal perspective on digital "theft". And here is a list of content theft in all its forms from the MPAA. As a rebuttal to the NYT story, here is a Freakonomics blog post on why downloading is not theft. And finally, here is a Wired opinion piece on how "piracy" (the online dissemination of music, movies, and books) is simply the next step in publishing's technological evolution. In general, people have quite strong moralistic positions on this despite the inherent intangibility of the information in question.

[5] It is not so much that corporate entities are blinded by greed, but rather that their raison d'etre is to extract rent from both the creators of content and the consumers of content. This might make sense in a world where technology restricts how this information is distributed to the audience, or in cases where the costs are minimal and the benefits have the potential to be highly advantageous to the creator, but probably makes little sense in an age of high-bandwidth internet access. In other words, the proprietary journals et.al must now prove their worth.

[6] For more information (not neccessarily of the Guerilla variety) on how to be more open access-friendly, please see two recent blog posts:

1) What your can do to promote open access (Peter Suber).

2) 10 things you can REALLY do to support Open Access (Michael Eisen, "Tree of Life").

In addition, Dan Cohen (at Wired Blogs) wrote a post in tribute to Aaron Schwartz called "How to Make Open-Access Work". Fits well within the scope of my talk.

ADDED ON 1/17: A group of Mathematicians have just announced that the Episciences project (open-source peer-review system and journal) will commence soon as an arXiv overlay journal. Good luck!

No comments:

Post a Comment