In response to the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, this week's Sunday Chronicle has two articles offering opposite interpretations of copyright in our digital age.
Swartz believed in maximizing access to information, and released JSTOR articles from MIT's servers (many of those articles had been publicly funded). JSTOR sued but settled; the government pressed the case. Swartz decided not to fight that battle anymore, taking his own life a few weeks ago at the age of 26.
Today Pamela Samuelson, law professor at UC Berkeley, unpacks Swartz's motivations. Her argument will be very familar to those of us who have followed the open access movement for years. But it still bears repeating: scholars work to increase the store of knowledge; they are not directly paid to publish research articles or produce other scholarly artifacts; in fact, they often receive taxpayer supported grants to complete their research; therefore, this research should be available to everyone.
I completely agree. At Samuel Merritt we maintain a proxy server that locks out unauthorized readers of our online journal collections, a fact about which I feel guilty every day I go to work.
But it's the law, son. We must obey copyright.
The US Copyright Clause states, "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries" [bold mine]. To the extent that copyright law thwarts the progress of science, there is a conflict between means and ends. And the ends are losing. Samuelson: "There was a time when access to knowledge was promoted through grants of copyrights to authors who typically transferred them to publishers. Now copyright has become the single most serious impediment to access to knowledge."
After reading Samuelson I read Sally Lehrman's piece. The Chronicle presented their pieces as a debate, but that is not true. Lehrman is talking about the independent artist or journalist who makes a direct living from their labor. If copyright protections are removed for the work of people like this, Lehrman argues, they will go into another line of work and the public square will shrink. After all, we can't expect anyone to do work that won't allow them to put food on their table.
I agree. And, I suspect, so would Pam Samuelson. For we are talking about two different groups of creators: 1. scholars who are paid by a university and receive government grants; 2. independent contractors whose income derives from the direct sale of their work. Copyright as currently applied is a tragedy for group 1; and a very necessary incentive for group 2.
So what's to be done? We should bifurcate the blanket term "copyright" into a more accurate and responsive conception of how knowledge is shared today. One size does not fit all. Nobody wants to deny an intrepid investigative journalist her daily bread. But the cost of that bread should not include the denial of scholarly knowledge to people who could use it.