I'm sure you've already read about Aaron Swartz, the young computer whiz (with an apparent tendency toward depression) who committed suicide when prosecutors went after him for stealing files from JSTOR
, the people who make money from old academic articles. He did this by gaining access to physical computers at MIT.
Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack.” Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.
Compare this to the defense of the charges against Swartz by Carmen M. Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, in 2011: "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars."
But is "stealing" really stealing in this case? Who is the real
As even JSTOR (which decided not to pursue a legal case against Swartz) admitted, the guy did not in any way try to make money from the millions of old academic articles he accessed. Swartz simply thought that information deserved to be free. (JSTOR doesn't make newer articles available.)
The authors who wrote all that stuff years and years ago aren't making any money from JSTOR. Many of them are no longer around.
Back when my ladyfriend was in college, we used JSTOR all the time. If we used it to find an old article on Renaissance painting published by Bernard Berenson in 1946 -- well, it's not as though Berenson can profit in any way from that piece of writing. He died around the time I was born. I'm sure that if Berenson's ghost could speak, he would tell us that he would prefer to see his text available for free to all who might find it useful.
Due to our nutty copyright laws, a staggering amount of important writing -- not just academic writing -- remains within an informational "no-man's land." Everything published before 1923 is free of copyright. Everything published afterward is protected, even though the writers may be dead. You may read that material in a library, but you may not read it online. (Yes, I know that I've simplified a rather complex situation; nobody came to this blog to read a zillion words on the intricacies of copyright law.)
Why are things the way they are?
The Walt Disney company has fought desperately to have our copyright laws written to insure that early Mickey Mouse cartoons never fall into the public domain. The first Mickey cartoon came out in 1928. The copyright laws reflect that date.
In five years, there may be another fight. Copyright law = the lifespan of Mickey Mouse.
In a saner world, older academic writing (and non-academic writing) would be freely available to all, and JSTOR would be a government-funded website providing all sorts of good stuff.