The Twitter hashtag #PDFTribute was started in response to the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Many of the top minds on the internet have posted moving tributes to his memory. See, for instance, Rick Perlstein, Ethan Zuckerman, Cory Doctorow, danah boyd, etc. But I want to focus on the DOJ’s prosecution of Swartz, as it relates to the Open Access issues we have frequently discussed here on Savage Minds.

Glenn Greenwald’s post offers a good overview:

But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles – they are usually not paid for writing them – but instead goes to the publishers.

This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America’s colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.

Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.

But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged “victims”. Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.

Lawrence Lessig is similarly outraged. Here’s a sample:

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

JSTOR released a statement:

The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge.

As did MIT, which is reviewing it handling of the case:

“Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in an email sent to the university community Sunday afternoon…

But what led me to write this post is a grassroots movement on Twitter whereby scholars are sharing open-access versions of their papers and marking them with the #PDFTribute hashtag. I’ve earlier tried to encourage more of this kind of sharing by anthropologists and this is a great way to start. Even better, Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis has written a post called “Ten simple ways to share PDFs of your papers #PDFtribute” which should be required reading for every scholar.

UPDATE: pdftribute.net aims to archive every link posted to the twitter hashtag.

3 thoughts on “#PDFTribute

  1. R I P Aaron Swartz a gr8 soul who jux wanted the betterment of world . Your efforts will not go in vain. P. Kerim Friedman a gr8 post tells us a lot abt the loopholes in the judicial system how samething in happening all around the world where an innocent is made an criminals and criminals are roaming free . god bless us all.

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