Online Sharing of Articles – Legal Questions

Q: What do you do if you are someone who has discovered a song that you want to listen to, but you and your local library do not have a legal copy of that song?

A: You go to your favorite online music store and pay $0.99 for the song.

How about…

Q: What do you do if you are a medical researcher or student who has discovered a scholarly article that you need to further your education, but you and your library do not have access to the article?

A: You go to the publisher of the article and pay anywhere from $7 to $100 for the article you might skim once and realize it didn’t adequately address the topic you were researching. [Update: Read the end for a new development]

Or, you think of another answer…

In the case of one online medical researcher community, the answer was to ask their colleagues who do have access for a copy of the article. Ken Masters published an article about such a situation in The Internet Journal of Medical Informatics titled “Opening the non-open access medical journals: Internet-based sharing of journal articles on a medical web site.

How it worked is quite simple: researcher A, who does not have access to the articles, posts a request for the article. Researcher B, who does have access, gets an electronic version of the article and posts it on the web in a publicly available place. Researcher A now has access to that article. The forum where the materials were requested and posted was public (and even indexed by Google) and viewable by anyone.

At first brush, this appears to be analogous to the sharing of music online. Someone unauthorized to copy a file is providing it to someone else who did not pay to have access to it. Thus, it is very likely the actions taken by these researchers is copyright infringement. There could be some very important exceptions. Notably, a researcher not knowing they in fact did have access to the article through their library or other service. In that case the transaction was the sharing of an article between two individuals who had legal access to download and view the article, thus not copyright infringement.

One of the interesting aspects of this situation is that this community had a public log of the discussions which made it was easy for the investigator, Ken Masters, to study the discourse around what was happening. It is important to note from his findings that there did “not appear to be any vindictiveness on the part of the participants against the journals or holders of copyright, but a mood of togetherness, of openness and sharing, and communal assistance.”

This highlights one of the most important driving factors of many proponents of Open Access Journals; it isn’t about “sticking it to the man” but instead a deep seated desire to enable your peers to have the same access to knowledge as you do, and by doing so, increase everyone’s ability to learn.

Additionally, this is yet another example where a modification of a publisher’s business model could address both the issue of illegally sharing content between members of a community and adapting to the new world of online, digital, and zero marginal costs publishing.

Also discussed at Techdirt and Ars Technica.

UPDATE (10/30 11:32am):

It was recently announced that the company DeepDyve will be providing rental of scholarly articles for 99 cents (for 24 hours). They seem to have access to a large collection of articles (30 million) from a wide variety of publishers (participating publisher list).

What does this mean for researchers? It means they now have a cheap way of obtaining access to articles that they would not otherwise be able to read.

Will this change researchers’ view of Open Access? Or does it just create another venue where individuals will be charged yet another time for the output of publicly funded research? The answers to these questions are unclear. However, it is clear that this service will most likely not be a complete solution to the goal of making research available as widely as possible.

Open Access Week and Open Everything Events

This week is the international celebration of Open Access, Open Access Week.

OA Week 2009 Banner

Open Access Week is a celebration of all things Open Access on University campuses and other institutions around the world. From the OA Week website:

Open Access Week is an opportunity to broaden awareness and understanding of Open Access to research, including access policies from all types of research funders, within the international higher education community and the general public.

You might remember that the University of Michigan Library put on its own Open Access Week back in March (I blogged about on the Creative Commons blog: “Creative Commons CTO speaking at Open Access Week“). That week-long event was an amazing success and we’re excited to see what MLibrary does for the next Open Access Week.

Related to Open Access Week, Open.Michigan is hosting an inaugural Open Everything event which we recently blogged about.

Open Everything Logo

There is a lot of good stuff happening in and around the University of Michigan related to the concept of “Open” and I hope that these events will encourage more people to get involved!

Open Everything: A Global Conversation about the Art, Science, and Spirit of ‘Open’

Open Everything logoPlease join us on October 30th for Open Everything: Ann Arbor. We are one of several locations hosting this worldwide event, during which participants take part in a global conversation about the art, science and spirit of ‘open’.  Open Everything gathers people using openness to create and improve software, education, government, media, philanthropy, architecture, food systems, workplaces and the society we live in. It’s about thinking, doing, and being open.

Hosted by the Open.Michigan Initiative, Ann Arbor’s event will provide an evening of discussions around the ways that openness, collaboration, and participation are unfolding in our area and relate to the businesses, organizations, and networks we are a part of. Representatives from the Creative Commons, University of Michigan Copyright Office, Scholarly Publishing Office, a2Geeks and other local activists and entrepreneurs will be among the many individuals helping to launch this event. It’s an opportunity to connect with people who value openness—a chance to collaborate with the people involved in or creating projects and initiatives that are charting the trajectory of open here in Ann Arbor and beyond.

If you value transparency, openness, access to information, strong communities, and sharing and have project ideas or other examples of where this ‘open’ ethos exists in our community, we look forward seeing you here!

Event Details:

Date: Friday, October 30th, 2009

Time: 5:30 – 9:00pm (registration and casual conversation begins at 4:30pm)

Location: U-M East Hall – 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI. (3rd floor terrace of Psychology Dept.)

Refreshments: Light refreshments and cold drinks available throughout the evening.

To RSVP, or for More Information:

Participate in the Open.Michigan Reading Group

Students, Faculty, and Staff are all invited to participate in the
first meeting of the Open.Michigan Reading Group.  This reading and
discussion group is for anyone with an interest in open
educational resources (OER), open access and open content initiatives,
open source software, open archives and publishing, open data efforts,
and open standards.

Our first session takes place Wednesday, October 14 from 4:30-5:30 pm
in the Ehrlicher Room (room 411) in West Hall.  The selected readings
for this session are:

— John Seely Brown and Richard Adler “Minds on Fire: Open Education,
the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0″

— James Boyle “The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of
the Public Domain”

The first reading brings together a number of developments in
teaching, learning, open educational resource development and use, and
social web ideas. The second goes further into the discussion around
copyright, past and present, what this means for scholarly work and
education, and what could be meant by the notion of a public domain or
a commons of the mind.  Both make for interesting reading and provide
us with a rich set of topics for discussion.

In preparation for our first gathering, here are some questions for your contemplation:

  • John Seely Brown, in “Minds of Fire,” describes “demand pull” versus “supply push” approaches to learning.  What does he mean?
  • How does Brown see 21st century learning and work demands affecting what needs to be taught?
  • How do OER efforts figure into this new educational world as Brown envisions it?
  • What is the role of institutions such as the University of Michigan in learning and teaching in a world dominated by Learning 2.0?  Are universities still useful, or not?
  • What is the importance of the commons or the public domain in intellectual activities?
  • What is the “second commons enclosure” movement?
  • Why does Boyle say: the “public domain’s primary function is allowing copyright law to continue to work not-withstanding the unrealistic, individualistic idea of creativity it depends on.”
  • What changes in the way information and communication are done currently make these questions particularly important for us?
  • What are the tensions between conceptions of the commons vs those of the public domain for Boyle?
  • What does Boyle mean by the need to “invent” the notions of the commons and the public domain?
  • Bonus question:  What in the work of the new Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom relates to these notions of the commons?

Between our meetings, we encourage you to keep the discussion going on our blog, Twitter stream, or Facebook page: links available at

Please extend this invitation to others who might be interested.  We
look forward to seeing you at our first gathering.

Joseph Hardin, School of Information
Melissa Levine, University Library
Ted Hanss, Medical School
on behalf of the Open.Michigan Initiative