Never say Never
Commentary by Lenko Grigorov

Freedom of Information

It was sad news on Jan 11—a young man committed suicide. It was Aaron Swartz, 26, a crusader for freedom of information, who was prosecuted for his actions.

Many people have spoken about Aaron's contributions and I will not dilute this topic with my own musings. Instead, I would like to talk about Information itself.

First, I would like to point out that there are different kinds of information—including what you ate for breakfast. Facebook is deluged with this type of information. Here I will discuss the other type; the type which brings value to humanity.

Information is Power. Let us establish this fact. An obvious example is the knowledge of how to make nukes. The US knew how to make nukes; the Axis didn't. We know how WW2 ended. Information, however, can provide an advantage at a much more trivial level as well. Imagine that you are searching for a job. You learn through a friend of a small company that has an opening but the opening is not well advertised. Well, you will have an advantage over your job-hunting neighbor who has not heard of this opening.

The focus of Aaron's cause was the trove of information which humanity has accumulated and which is withheld from public access by greedy copyright holders. This includes research papers, references, literary works, recordings of public performances, etc. This information is part of our heritage, it is the basis of our civilization and of our culture; why should individuals be limited in getting access to it?

Speaking about research publications in particular, the status quo is that access by the general public is costly. Depending on the journal holding the copyright, it would cost anywhere from $15 to more than $40 to obtain a copy of a scientific paper. Such is the cost also of my own papers which were accepted for publication by Springer. In my case, the research was sponsored in its entirety (as far as I can tell) via public funds: a public Canadian university, the Government of Ontario, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. I would like to ask, then, why is the product of my research not available at a reasonable cost to the Canadian public?

One could argue that not all research is sponsored via public funds. The people and organizations that pay for research may reasonably expect to have some say in who gets to see it and under what conditions. Copyright was introduced to protect the interests of such organizations. There is a hidden trick in copyright, however: it expires. Indeed, eventually the general public will get unlimited access to any copyrighted piece.

Why is it essential that copyright expires? Let us imagine a world where copyright does not expire. We can also imagine that rich corporations have the resources to sponsor some of the most advanced research, yielding most valuable knowledge. (In fact, we don't need to imagine the latter: think about the pharmaceutical giants.) If copyright never expires, then the richest corporations will be able to hoard all knowledge and thus propagate their power infinitely. Everyone else will be subjected to their might. Lawmakers have understood this scenario and thus have set limits on copyright. After a certain time frame during which the holder of information can rake in the spoils of knowledge, the information becomes publicly available. Without expiry on copyright, we would be in an arrangement not much different from the Medieval times.

Information is Power. So we must ask: do the holders of information like to lose control of it? Clearly not. It is well documented that copyright holders around the world lobby the governments extensively, and successfully, to keep extending the expiry date. People who cannot afford to pay, cannot gain access—even when the copyright holder has little to do with the acquisition of the information (ref. Springer). Even critical events woven in the fabric of a nation, such as Martin L. King's speech, remain copyrighted.

How can we fight back? Should we follow what Aaron laid out in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto? The powers that be will strike mercilessly any attempts.

I propose that we should work around the legal system. When new information is got, publish it within the Creative Commons framework and share with others. Do not sign up with any established restrictive copyright schemes. Create an alternative, open access culture. Be the hippies of this century.

This is the fight for Open Access to Knowledge.

— London, ON, Jan 2013

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