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One Artist Is Printing 250,000 Pages of Pirated JSTOR Documents, In Tribute to Aaron Swartz

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
April 4, 2014

One Artist Is Printing 250,000 Pages of Pirated JSTOR Documents, In Tribute to Aaron Swartz

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
April 4, 2014

For several days now, five printers in Düsseldorf, Germany, have been pumping out articles from JSTOR, the digital library of academic journals.

The JSTOR Pirate Headquarters has taken up its ephemeral residence at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, and those printers will ultimately fill 250,000 pieces of paper with about 33 gigabytes of scholarly information. If you’re in the area, you can stop by and browse this stuff – which would cost you something like $353,229 to buy from JSTOR itself.

The monetary figure matters because the tremendous trove of journal articles and the like that JSTOR has amassed exist behind a paywall, a scenario that many information activists find objectionable. Most famously, when programmer and activist Aaron Swartz downloaded an estimated 70 gigs of JSTOR articles, it got him arrested in 2011, and charged with wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. (Swartz committed suicide in 2013, two days after a judge rejected his second plea bargain on the case.)    

The JSTOR Pirate Headquarters, then, exists partly as a tribute to Swartz, and partly as a provocation, explains its overseer, the artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The material being printed consists of “arcane scientific papers that are hundreds of years out of copyright,” he tells me via email. “Yet JSTOR is firewalling & profiting from this stuff, which should be available to everyone at no cost.”

Producing physical versions of the material makes the point more bluntly: It’s easier to grasp massive piles of paper than a digital metric like “33 gigabytes.” And that’s particularly true when you realize this is a tiny sliver of the information JSTOR has collected.

Indeed, the project came about in part as a result of a previous Goldsmith enterprise, “Printing The Internet.” (I wrote about that here.) That sparked a conversation with the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Goldsmith says. “I wanted to see whether I could find Aaron Swartz’s original cache of JSTOR materials on the web to print out, but they were nowhere to be found (presumably locked up by the US Department of Justice).”

What he did find was a “tribute action” by Greg Maxwell, who shortly after Swartz’ arrest released more than 18,000 PDFs of scientific papers, “procured legally” from JSTOR — but then made available as a torrent on Pirate Bay.

That’s what Goldsmith decided to print. The Kunsthalle is funding the effort, and Goldsmith is working with five students from a local art school to get the printing done. There has been, to date, no word from JSTOR. And realistically, this mass of paper is not a material threat to its business — even if it does make material an argument about the nature of that business.

“The legal issue is interesting. Is printing material without the intent to distribute it really illegal?” Goldsmith asks. “Is this useless intellectual property really worth going to the mat for?

“It’s art, after all.”  

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the papers had been illegally-downloaded.