I was busy vacillating over whether to use my real name and address when signing one of those most-likely-frivolous online petitions a few days ago when I learned that someone stole an idea that I’d been keeping under my hat for some time.
I recently stumbled into a situation that provided me with expansive access to JSTOR, an online service that provides access to scanned, OCR’ed, and generally nicely polished content from so-called “academic journals”, which are indistinguishable, as far as I can tell, from the more plebeian-sounding magazines they actually are. The content is great, but the prices are just disgracefully high. They’re prohibitively high, in fact. The average person cannot afford to access the content they, presumably, painstakingly digitized. You can pay for a subscription for some ungodly amount or you can pay to download individual articles. If you’re an infrequent user, I suppose the latter is the better idea, but it’s still absurdly expensive.
My school, however, has a subscription to JSTOR, as well as other similar services, such as Springerlink. As soon as I found this out I noticed that they’re doing something sneaky where they’ve got a proxy server set up that students can use to remotely access the school JSTOR account and download content from anywhere. In other words, the school is not-so-subtly encouraging its students to engage in disingenuous behaviour, if not blatantly illegal copyright infringement.
I had known of the existence of JSTOR and some other similar services before enrolling in this school, but I never imagined I would be able to access the content. For that matter, I was sceptical of whether the content even existed, since JSTOR and Springerlink are invariably the top search results on Google when you search for the title of an article or the name of an author on Google Scholar. It seemed similar to the phenomenon by which you’re searching for a DDL link or torrent of some obscure object of desire and Google presents you with links to torrent indexers like Bitsnoop and torrentz.eu or DDL site search services like Filestube, which you click only to see that it just leads to a page informing you that no results were found for whatever you typed into Google. In other words, just an SEO tactic used to steer visitors looking for thing X to the JSTOR website where they procceed to sell you things Y and Z.
Having said that, I now know that JSTOR is a legitimate service that actually has the media they purport to have available.
Seeing how great the service apparently was, it seemed like a given that I could just go on over to my favourite torrent indexer or private tracker and download gigabytes of PDFs harvested from JSTOR for free. No dice though. I was very surprised, since it seemed like the sort of content to which the benefit of piracy would extend greatly, due to its ridiculous price. That is, it seems to me that the benefit of pirating, for example, a $15 music CD is relatively low when compared to the risk and discomfort of the moral qualms it may arouse, whereas pirating a PDF of academic materials that would have cost you $250 to purchase is a better risk to take. Educational content seems to be more expensive than popular content. I don’t know why; they’re printed on the same paper and pressed on the same CDs and DVDs as popular media. Perhaps it’s not that they’re more expensive because they’re educational but rather that niche stuff is always more expensive and many educational materials are considered niche enough to render a price comparable to popular materials unviable.
I’m digressing though.
Finding that, on the one hand, I couldn’t afford to purchase the materials I wanted legally, while, on the other, I couldn’t even acquire them illicitly if I wanted to, I was in a bind. That’s why I was happy when I enrolled in this school and learned of how they’re basically encouraging us to download content from JSTOR with reckless abandon (and, implicitly, do with it what we will).
You’d have to be an idiot or someone with absolutely no sense of opportunism at all not to think about making some script or other that downloads everything available to you from JSTOR and then publishing a torrent of it. Of course, let me make clear that I am a law abiding citizen and would never actually do that; I’m just emphasizing that you’d have to be pretty dense not to take notice of an opportunity that presents itself quite so flamboyantly.
But, to my simultaneous chagrin and moral endorsement — distinct from practical endorsement (read: I do not endorse this) — the founder of DemandProgress.org, Aaron Swartz, stole my idea, as people seem to have a penchant for doing. He was promptly arrested, it seems, but, to JSTOR’s credit, they did not pursue a civil suit against him, though the gummint threw the book at him.
This all happened in July, but I didn’t know anything about it until the other day, when I was signing one of those ubiquitous petitions against SOPA and PIPA. I didn’t want to give my name and address on a website run by some PAC I knew nothing about. For all I knew DemandProgress.org was run by American Crossroads. But it’s not; it’s run by an east coast pirate redditor whiner hipster-doofus troublemaker who stole my idea and I’m okay with that.