Liberate and disseminate

Free information freely available is the rallying cry of Erik Ringmar, who wants others to join in putting restricted documents on the web

April 10, 2008

The The Internet Archive is an amazing place. Most famous for maintaining the net's largest repository of old web pages - some 2 petabytes of data - it also collects many other kinds of material: old movies, radio and television shows, books. The Americans have put entire libraries online, one scanned volume after the other. It's all for free and you don't need any particular credentials to get access. A search for "China" provides 1,628 titles (mainly 19th-century books); a search for "Tocqueville" gives you 67 hits (lots of rare secondary sources). Although the past may be a foreign country, the friendly border guards at the Internet Archive hand out free visas to all travellers.

A neat feature of the site is that it allows uploads. As a result, you can treat the Internet Archive like an academic version of YouTube, a place where you can share material and promote your work. Remember your book on the transformation of Spanish political parties in the 1990s? The one that didn't sell that well? Why not deposit it online so that someone may actually read it? And why not be generous to fellow scholars and upload your source material once you've finished your research? Scholarship is all about collaboration, after all. And think of colleagues in less well-resourced locations who don't have easy access to fancy research libraries.

Not uncharacteristically, British research institutions are far behind the Americans when it comes to public online access to material. The contents of Hansard, which publishes the proceedings of the Houses of Parliament, are available online only from 1988. If you want access to older debates, bizarrely you have to visit a website at the University of Florida. Meanwhile American Congressional records dating back to 1774 are, naturally, available for easy browsing at the Library of Congress.

However, other British parliamentary papers are available online. All reports produced by the House of Commons have, for example, been scanned by a company called ProQuest. Its site is great - pages are searchable backwards and forwards. The only problem is that access is restricted and comes with a charge. Each downloaded parliamentary report bears a little inscription: "Copyright © 2006, ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved."

Think about this for a second. Here is a company that lays exclusive claim to material produced by the elected representatives of the people. A company whose business idea it is to restrict access to our common heritage. This is upsetting first of all because it goes against the rights of citizens in a democracy to have the documents produced by their parliament freely available. Second, ProQuest is claiming copyright to material whose copyright has long expired. And finally it makes academic research far more difficult. Unless you belong to a university that's prepared to pay for the stuff, you won't get to read it.

So, I've taken it upon myself to start an organisation called MLOP, the "Movement for the Liberation of Old Papers". What I do is hack into restricted websites, download the documents I'm interested in, and then use my favourite open-source paint program to remove the copyright statements from each page. Next I assemble the pages into one single pdf file and upload it to the Internet Archive, where it will become universally available to both researchers and citizens. Yes, it does take a bit of time, but it's a very worthy cause (and I have a hardworking research assistant to help me).

I feel strongly about this, and I'm prepared to live with the legal consequences of my actions. This, after all, is the new frontier of civil rights - the right of access to information. How else can corruption be stopped and falsehoods exposed? How else can people in power be held accountable? I'd go to prison for the old parliamentary papers if I had to. Ever after I would proudly brag about having liberated an old House of Commons report from the clutches of market capitalism.

Why not join me in my revolution? It's easy and fun. If you have a university affiliation, you have access to all kinds of restricted material that easily can be redirected to an open-access website. Do it! If you have a scanner, you can even raid your university library and share the loot with the rest of us. Serve the common good and liberate an old document today!

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