Aaron Swartz’s life caught my imagination – so much so that I found myself almost involuntarily inside a thought experiment: what would have happened if Aaron had released the full 100% of JSTOR’s content?
I have faith that many tech-savvy professors would have loved freeing their home institution’s subscription budget by downloading and using the JSTOR archive leak – but my guess is that their home institutions would have pushed back hard. The risk of lawsuit would be seen as very high if professors using university computers, or professors using university email, were to commit millions of individual copyright violations. The universities would put pressure on faculty to not download or even use the leaked JSTOR content out of fear from lawsuit by JSTOR or the individual publishers.
I also think that higher education institutions would still perceive strong demand from their faculty to keep their current JSTOR subscriptions in place. Not all faculty are particularly tech-savvy; about a third of faculty use Twitter and I would wager that no more than half of that group would be comfortable downloading a massive torrent file. That leaves roughly 80% of faculty still calling the library and their divisional deans asking for access to JSTOR be provided to them via the institution.
I think big acts of protest like Aaron’s need to be seen as a first attention-grabbing step in a long process of social change. Borrowing from political opportunity theory, it strikes me that the challenge would be converting public interest in the JSTOR leak (social context) into broader public sentiment and grievance (insurgent consciousness). From there the challenge is converting discontent into social movement organizations (organized strengths) that are capable of producing long-term institutionalized change either through legal or practical action. I think that, while a frustratingly small step, JSTOR’s new program offering access to ~6 free articles per month, or perhaps more clearly JSTOR’s release of pre-1923 articles after a torrent user released these articles as a form of protest, is the kind of concrete change that organized interests can push for – but only after they have hard-won awareness from efforts like Aaron Swartz’s.
All of this is not to say that the JSTOR leak would not have been an important event in the movement promoting free and open access to knowledge. I think that bold acts like Aaron’s leak of JSTOR content is important in gaining attention and support for social change – but we should not see such acts as ends unto themselves, but as distinct moments of opportunity for coedifying positive change.