Academia in the Digital Age

Talking openly about certain things, means being pounded into submission by some lawyer firm, sent by a couple of the big publishers. Instead of talking about these certain things, I will talk about talking about these certain things. What I am talking about could be described as a war over what is legal and illegal, right or wrong, in terms of digital content, fought out between different generations. Mostly, this goes on behind the scenes, but in recent years more and more has been spilled into the public domain so it will be easy to connect my ideas to events you may have heard of.

Ask any person under 30 in Europe or North America if it is wrong to download music without paying for it, and they very likely will shrug their shoulders and continue with whatever it was they were doing. The same goes for movies, video games, software, and, since only recently, books. Once these products enter the digital sphere, anything goes. They whoosh around the globe with the speed of light, freely shared, for some extraordinary popular items even by millions of people.

How immoral are the younger generations, really? When radio came to be, anyone with the right equipment could freely listen to it. Cassette recorders, produced for the consumer market, have been used to automatically copy creative content for decades. With books, the case is even more obvious. For most of recorded history, books survived exactly because they were copied, and the author surely was not going to get reimbursed for it. Its creative content was in the public domain, which in turn made it possible to create libraries. Surely no one objects when someone goes to a library to loan a book, reads it, perhaps copies some pages, and then returns it. The only difference with the digital age is that all of this is going in a much faster pace, but that creative content can essentially not be owned by anyone has been part and parcel of our cultural sub conscience since time immemorial.

Older generations seem to not want to understand this. They have perhaps always held the belief that exclusivity of the product they were selling is what keeps your business running. The increasingly strong reactions from them, retaliations is a better word, show that they are bitter over losing what they have always considered as their untouchable source of income, and unwilling to adapt to their changing environment.

That I am not exaggerating that this has turned into an all-out war has become more and more obvious in the last couple of years. The amount of excessive force used in taking down, for example, megaupload.com is astonishing. They used anti-terrorism espionage and not only raided the owner’s house in New Zealand with a small army, but also sent a SWAT team to his mother’s house in Germany to seize any assets they could get their hands on. Perhaps less noticeable to the public has been the shockwave effect this has had on many websites similar to megaupload, which had serious implications for the free exchange of digital books.

You may have heard how Aaron Swartz was legally harassed (to put it mildly) by Jstor and the US government for ‘downloading too much’. Yes the story has a different side as well, but it is shocking nonetheless that he was held to be a felon and faced perhaps 50 or more years of prison. The case never came to a conclusion as the charges were dropped after he committed suicide. Among the responses was the release of  32Gb of journal articles from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and, included in the description of the Torrent, a manifesto on academic publishing. Here is an excerpt:

Academic publishing is an odd system: the authors are not paid for their
writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they're just more unpaid academics),
and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the
authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously
expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access
fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals,
but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

We will pick up on this in a next post.

Another pioneer that I am sure many of you are familiar with was library.nu and/or gigapedia.info. The amount of high quality academic PDFs on that website was crazy (from what I have heard). The big publishers came in like good patent trolls and sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter. A simple search on https://www.chillingeffects.org/copyright/ reveals that all academic publishers are constantly sending such queries under the DMCA to Google, in order to try to get content which they claim is illegally hosted out of Google’s index. Most recently, Elsevier has taken the lead to take this strategy to get academia.edu on its knees. More on that can be read here.

These are just a handful of high profile cases which hopefully make clear how serious this conflict is. I highly encourage you to read more about this. In a next post I shall specifically deal with PDFs, the most common file format for academic books and journal articles, and the issues of legally or illegally acquiring, owning, and archiving them.

N.B. If you have sensitive information you would like to share regarding this post, please inquire first how to establish secure and encrypted communication between us.

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