Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mickey Mouse killed Aaron Swartz

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.
In a detailed and convincing post, Alex Stamos, the expert witness who was planning to testify for Swartz at trial, points out that MIT deliberately operates an “extraordinarily open network” with few controls to prevent abuse. Any visitor can register, and it’s easy to bypass the controls that do exist by assigning yourself an IP address, according to Stamos. There are no terms of use or definition of abusive practices. And when Swartz downloaded the JSTOR articles, “the JSTOR website allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody” on MIT’s network. There were no controls for catching bulk downloads. And so, Stamos concludes,
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 pilferer here?

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?

Mickey Mouse. That's why.

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.


Anonymous said...

Anyone old enough to remember 'shareware'?

Aaron left a sizable estate, and I hope his heirs use that money to;

1) File a lawsuit against DOJ, not for wrongful prosecution, but for selective enforcement, because clearly he was not too big to fail.

2.) Establish a trust fund to defend those of little means in similar matters. I think the young man would approve.


b said...

In the UK, there used to be free access to articles in many academic journals, for those who didn't look too punky to get away with walking into a university library and asking for a day ticket. You could just say thanks for the ticket and walk on up to the shelves.

Nowadays, many articles that have been published in the past 20 years are only accessible in most university libraries (or using university facilities) in electronic form. And to be allowed access, most of the time you need an actual user account, which they don't give to people who just walk in off the street.

So access to huge quantities of resources has been removed from millions of people, in one fell swoop, sold as part of the fucking information revolution.

Hardly any 'information campaigner' mentions this. They haven't got a clue how the other half live. They probably wouldn't understand even if you told them.

(I told one university librarian, and she certainly didn't appreciate the point I was making. She was just really pleased that access was restricted to those with university cards and she could call up on her little Nazi screen a full list - or what she naively thought was a full list - of everyone who was in the library at a given time.)

JSTOR, originally funded by Mellon money, calls itself 'non-profit', by the way!

Private property is bullshit enough. The idea of private property being owned by fictitious entities is even more bullshit. So is the whole fucking notion of "intellectual property". It's a Mickey Mouse notion indeed.

Got to admit, some of our friends in the Far East and Russia have done a good job uploading many academic books and articles to the internet.

Joseph Cannon said...

Well, b, this is one reason why I am not opposed to many bittorrents -- even though, speaking as a "content provider," a few torrents have picked my own pocket.

Something similar has happened to the Library of Congress. You can't use the materials -- you can't even stay in the damn building (which is architecturally significant) past 5 -- unless you proffer an official LoC card. And you get THAT by running your driver's license through the system.

So Big Brother knows what you are researching at all times.

Needless to say, things used to be different. You just walked into the Jefferson building and asked a surly clerk to give you the rare books you wanted. An hour later, the surly clerk would deliver. Then you made photocopies of those rare books, even though doing so was officially forbidden.

All very civilized.

(By the way, that's how I obtained a copy of "Le Vrai Langue Celtique." I no longer have it, alas...)

Bob Harrison said...

I wrote a shareware program back in the late 70's that converted all sorts of stuff from one thing to another, i.e. miles to parsecs, etc. Calculator interface with a "?" in the upper right corner that accessed the help system (a right click gave you a roll-over "what-is-this-effect"). Never made a cent, but I did notice that several word processors from big names and one spreadsheet all came out within a few months using the same system. My copyright sure didn't stop anybody, but then the law is always there for rich.

prowlerzee said...

Thank you. Aaron's horrific demise has suffered from too little attention.

May I add I hate Firefox? Firefox = Volvo

Ken said...

Respectfully, this article seems based in incorrect FUD. Aaron took extreme measures to bypass access controls, then broke into a closet after MIT had effectively banned him.

See http://www.volokh.com/2013/01/14/aaron-swartz-charges/