Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit and an Internet activist charged with 13 counts of felony for downloading around five million academic journal articles from the digital library Jstor, committed suicide this month. He had legitimate access to the library and probably intended to upload the articles to file sharing networks. Quite apart from Swartz who was living the American dream is old Shyam Singh, the owner of an unassuming photocopying shop licensed by the Delhi School of Economics. He faces charges of copyright infringement levelled by half a dozen publishing companies for photocopying academic material which would otherwise have been out of the financial reach of students. In May 2011, Richard O’Dawyer was charged for copyright infringement and sought to be extradited from the UK to the US for creating a search engine that indexed links to copyrighted content. Torrent sites are sporadically taken down or blocked and their owners prosecuted. These incidents and many others are a part of a larger narrative that shows the need to democratise digitised information so that it benefits its creators and consumers. They also show that copyright and the lack of open access create cash cows for large profitable organisations and that the efforts to bring free access to knowledge or information invite reprisal.

Aaron Swartz at a PIPA protest

Aaron Swartz at a protest against PIPA (Protect IP Act). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Daniel J. Sieradski

In the frenzy that is everyday life, we do not pause to think of how restrictions imposed by copyright, patents and anti-piracy laws affect us as consumers. We do not think much about paying a small fee for a public document we direly need. We are miffed when file sharing websites are throttled, but we wonder if we can do anything about it. After all, the content legally belongs to companies that own the copyrights. As Douglas Adams would have put it, we treat the matter as an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) and blissfully dissociate ourselves from it. However, the struggle to bring open access is not solely that of Swartz and the like. The content that Swartz attempted to liberate was academic research carried out in universities and public institutions. Most academic research is heavily supported by public infrastructure, but it benefits only a privileged few – large publishing corporations that own the copyrights to it and those who can afford access to it. Proponents of open access believe that the resources generated from activities funded by public money should be public property.

In the digital world, the definitions of knowledge and property have transcended those of the physical world. All digital content is in the form of copies. If I have a book and I give it you, there would be one copy between us. If I have a digital book and I give you a copy, we would both have a copy each. One of the charges pressed against Swartz was that of stealing, but Jstor did not lose any property. Swartz downloaded copies. This crucial difference between the physical and the virtual world has been pushing the boundaries of copyright and intellectual property as we have understood them. An increasingly digitised wealth of copyrighted information is locked up behind paywalls that make access to it frightfully expensive or prohibitively restrictive. Knowledge multiplies when shared, but knowledge as a commodity appreciates in value when locked away. It is then that knowledge ceases to be a great leveller and becomes a matter of property and private ownership. Technology as an enabler of open access seeks to remove the barriers to access and to turn academic knowledge into a public resource. Incidentally, technology also removes the monetary cost of such knowledge. In India, we find knowledge becoming accessible with courseware such as the videos of classroom lectures held in the IITs available for free. However, a lot of public documents are either not digitised, are copyrighted by the government or aren't made available unless an application under the Right to Information Act is filed. The portal Data.gov.in currently lists 19 datasets from nine government departments free of cost, but clearly, more needs to be done.

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The digital age brought with it many conveniences, including desktop publishing and indeed mobile publishing. When academic and creative works crossed over from the print medium to the digital one, copyright laws governing them did not undergo a corresponding transition – overarching the restrictions of print onto the world of bytes. Goalposts have shifted for the creators, consumers and marketers of knowledge, but they continue to play by the old rules. The result: The boundaries of ownership and rights to such content are terribly gauche and access is restricted by rules that are defined badly or arbitrarily.

It is ironic and unfortunate that some countries that support freedom of information also support laws and policies that aid the privatisation of knowledge. They also prohibitively stash away works that are created with public money and effort. A case in point is the Indian census 2011. Unlike previous censuses, the data from the 2011 census was copyrighted by the government. Freeing the data of copyright would open endless possibilities to use it for research and public good. In 2008, Swartz had downloaded 18 million documents off PACER, a database of the United States federal court, and donated them to a non-profit, public resources website. He contended that the documents that cost 8 cents per page were produced by the government and were free of copyright. An online tribute to honour Swartz that goes by the hashtag #pdftribute on Twitter has gathered over 1,500 links to academic and research papers released from copyright and made free. If the repository grows, it will be a fine monument as much to Swartz as to the concept of open access. It would ensure the cliques and cabals that now have a stranglehold over information do not turn the liberators of knowledge into “felons”.

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