Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Guerilla OA

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, unsigned but apparently by Aaron Swartz, July 2008.

...The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? Itís outrageous and unacceptable.

ďI agree,Ē many say, ďbut what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and itís perfectly legal ó thereís nothing we can do to stop them.Ē But there is something we can, something thatís already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources ó students, librarians, scientists ó you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not ó indeed, morally, you cannot ó keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. Itís called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isnít immoral ó itís a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed....

There is no justice in following unjust laws.  Itís time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks....

Also see the Guerilla OA mailing list.


  • I support all the legal tactics recommended here (and then some) and none of the illegal tactics.  It's legal to self-archive and it's legal to make public-domain texts OA.  It's not legal to make copyrighted texts OA without the copyright holder's permission, even if you paid for your own copy.
  • I don't oppose the illegal tactics because I think current copyright law is just.  On the contrary, I think it is grotesquely unbalanced and unjust.  Nor do I oppose civil disobedience.  But I don't accept that copyright infringement is civil disobedience and, more importantly, I don't accept that advancing OA through deliberate violations of copyright law would do more good than harm. 
  • I have three basic reasons:  (1) OA is already lawful and doesn't require the reform or violation of copyright law, even if it could leap forward with the right reforms.  (2) OA activists will never match the publishing industry's funds for litigation.  (3) One of the most persistent and harmful misunderstandings of OA is that it violates copyright law.  We've come a long way in educating policy-makers out of that misunderstanding.  But the Orwellian Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (a.k.a. Conyers bill) is just one recent piece of evidence that we still have a lot of educating to do and that publishers can still make a lot of hay from the misunderstandings which remain.  A campaign to give the publishing lobby its first valid evidence that OA violates copyright is the last thing we need. 
  • For an earlier take on some of these issues, see my 2003 article, Not Napster for Science.
  • It's not true that OA movement is doing nothing about previously published research.  There are many initiatives to provide retroactive OA, from the PMC Back Issue Digitization Project to the Wellcome Trust's Medical Journals Backfiles project.  However, it is true that the OA movement gives priority to new research, if only because it is lower-hanging fruit.  Retroactive OA faces some serious legal, financial, and logistical difficulties, which Aaron Swartz knows firsthand through his admirable, pioneering work on the Open Library and (see e.g. my blog posts, here and here).  But those difficulties make solutions desirable; they don't justify unlawful solutions.  Providing access to past literature is a good reason for legislators to change the law (even if they never will); but it's not a good reason for OA activists to disobey the law, especially if it would discredit the thousands of lawful projects now under way around the world.
  • We're much better off if "OA" means "lawful OA" resting on permission or the public domain.  In that world, as I put it in my OA Overview, "there is no vigilante OA, no infringing, expropriating, or piratical OA."  But if some OA is lawful and some is not, then we burden ourselves with the need to explain which is which and justify that which shouldn't need justification; we further confuse well-disposed stakeholders who are already confused about copyright; and we hand the publishing lobby a propaganda gift.
  • A companion site, Content Liberation Front ("the guerillas of the open access movement") proposes methods for providing OA to uncopyrightable data sets and sufficiently old journal articles (now in the public domain).  I consider that a legal strategy and a very desirable one, and I've applauded every similar initiative for uncopyrightable public information undertaken (for example) by Carl Malamud and
  • I should say for the record that one problem with current copyright law is that it leaves the line between legal and illegal tactics very fuzzy.  By criticizing illegal tactics, I don't mean to leave the impression that it's always easy to tell what they are.  By recommending only lawful tactics, I don't mean that we shouldn't push the envelope.