This story was updated (see below) on July 22 to reflect new information from JSTOR.
Prompted by the indictment this week of the online activist Aaron Swartz, a programmer has posted JSTOR’s archive of a historic science journal online via BitTorrent. In a note on the Pirate Bay Web site, Gregory Maxwell said he was sharing 18,592 papers from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—33 gigabytes’ worth. The journal, established by Britain’s premier scientific society, has been in existence since 1665. It has published work by Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Charles Darwin, and many other influential scientists. It’s available through JSTOR’s subscription-only database.
In his note, Mr. Maxwell said the material he posted is out of copyright, and he excoriated the academic publishing-and-gatekeeping system that locks up such content. “The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely,” he wrote. “Instead the articles are available at $19 each—for one month’s viewing, by one person, on one computer. It’s a steal. From you.”
Mr. Swartz was indicted Tuesday on charges of hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer system and making unauthorized downloads of more than four million journal articles. Mr. Maxwell said he felt that Mr. Swartz had been charged “for, effectively, downloading too many academic papers from JSTOR.”
That inspired Mr. Maxwell to post the Royal Society journal files, which he said he downloaded legally. “I’ve had these files for a long time, but I’ve been afraid that if I published them I would be subject to unjust legal harassment by those who profit from controlling access to these works,” he wrote. “I now feel that I’ve been making the wrong decision.”
In an e-mail exchange with The Chronicle, Mr. Maxwell described himself as a 31-year-old who works in the telecommunications industry. “I’m a technologist, a recreational mathematician, and scientific hobbyist—the last of which was at one time common, but the rise of specialization made it less so,” he wrote. Easier access to information “is reversing that trend somewhat.”
Mr. Maxwell said he did not believe he has broken any laws and that he hoped his actions would encourage people to “reconsider the norms around access to information and make public-domain information widely available.” He said he does not oppose copyright altogether. “I like the fact that authors can earn a living from their work,” he said. “I doubt that making all information unconditionally free would produce the best possible world. But at the same time, the system we have now is imbalanced and widely abused.”
He said he has met Mr. Swartz but doesn’t know him well. The Chronicle asked whether he thought Mr. Swartz had done anything wrong. “I can’t really answer this question without knowing what exactly he did,” Mr. Maxwell responded. “Though I don’t condone breaking and entering in general, I’m confused as to why it would even be required. The interesting part of this to me is only the access to the documents themselves.”
In a statement shared with a reporter, JSTOR said it was aware of Mr. Maxwell’s actions and was looking into the matter. It would not say what, if any, action it might take against him. (In its public statement about the case involving Mr. Swartz, JSTOR said its main goal was to secure the content he downloaded and that the decision to prosecute was made by the U.S. government.)
In response to Mr. Maxwell’s comments about the high price of access, JSTOR said “it is important to understand that there are costs associated with digitizing, preserving, and providing access to content.” It said it continues to work “extremely hard” to make scholarship available worldwide “in ways that are sustainable and that assure the public that the content will also be preserved and available into the future.”
Mr. Maxwell said he understands there’s a price tag attached. “I have sympathy for the position that distribution costs money and that those costs should be supported by people who value the work,” he said in his e-mail. “What I don’t have sympathy for is the position that making a century-old document available costs nearly $20 every single time it is accessed.”
Update, 7/22: JSTOR has concluded that the files Mr. Maxwell uploaded to BitTorrent were the Royal Society’s copies of material JSTOR digitized. Heidi McGregor, vice president for marketing and communications at the Ithaka group, JSTOR’s parent, explained why in an email to the Chronicle. (A reporter was not able to reach the Royal Society this afternoon for comment.)
“We downloaded the files from Pirate Bay,” she wrote. “If they had come from JSTOR directly, they would have had a specific cover page with every PDF. In this case, we had shared the files with the Royal Society after digitization so that they could also make them available as well. That set of files does not include the JSTOR cover page, but they do include a specific statement about the Royal Society and JSTOR collaborating to digitize, preserve, and make the content available. This is the statement that appears on what Maxwell loaded up.”