A critic of academic publishers has uploaded 19,000 scientific papers to the internet to protest the prosecution of a prominent programmer and activist accused of hacking into a college computer system and downloading almost 5 million scholarly documents from an archive service.
The 18,592 documents made available Wednesday through Bittorrent were pulled from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, a prestigious scientific journal that was founded in the 1600s, the protester said. Even though the vast majority of the documents are hundreds of years old, the London-based Royal Society charges from $8 to $19 for each one, and restricts viewing to one person on one computer for only a single month.
"If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified – it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge," Gregory Maxwell, self-described hobbyist scientist from Northern Virginia, wrote in a manifesto accompanying the upload. "One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime."
Maxwell's action comes three days after federal prosecutors charged Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz with computer intrusion, fraud, and data theft. They allege he broke into a locked computer-wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded more than 4.8 million scholarly articles from JSTOR, an online archive of more than 1,000 academic journals.
Academics and copyright critics immediately criticized the charges as excessive, likening them to trying to put someone in jail for checking out too many library books. They argue that many of the documents in JSTOR's collection are probably kept behind its paywall against the authors' will and that there are no valid copyright claims restricting their distribution.
Indeed, court documents charging Swartz contain no claims of copyright violations. Instead, they cite Swartz for intrusion of MIT's computer network and for impairing JSTOR's systems by using an automated script that systematically scraped its archive.
In an email to The Reg, Maxwell said he decided against uploading the documents anonymously to prevent anyone from falsely claiming Swartz was behind the move. All of the documents were published prior to 1923 to ensure they are all in the public domain. In addition to describing himself as a GNU/Linux user since the early 1990s, he said he has worked extensively with Wikimedia.
"I find a lot of my interests land at the intersection of technology and public policy," he wrote.
Jennifer Granick, a former staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who is now in private practice at the ZwillGen law firm, said in a blog post Thursday that Swartz could have used a guest account to download each article individually without violating the law.
"Is it a crime, therefore, that he used an automated process to do so?" she wrote. "Or does it only become a crime after JSTOR and MIT tried to block him? Or is it because the technique slowed the system down, and if so, wouldn't the defendant have had to intend that damage under longstanding principles of criminal due process? I find the theory that individual access is allowed, but automated access is not extremely interesting." ®