Archive for July, 2011

Annoying copyright problem

I want to buy a download of Sister Hazel’s track Change your mind.  It’s a trivial amount.  It’s available for download on  But … it’s not available, as far as I can see, in the UK.  And US sites won’t sell downloads to people in the UK.

Anyone got any ideas?

Extracts from Brockelmann’s “History of Arabic literature” – 1

For the last week or so, I’ve been reading sections of vol. 1 of the 2nd edition of Carl Brockelmann’s History of Arabic Literature.  I’m starting to get some idea of what exists, which is the object.  I thought that it might be useful to give some extracts in English here.  Let’s look at some material from the introduction, starting on p.2.  I’ve added links to the books where I could find them online, but if you can find more of them, do let me know!

II. Sources and earlier manuals on the history of Arabic literature.

The most important sources for biography and bibliography for the whole subject, leaving to one side monographs on particular subjects that will be given in their place, are the following:

1. Biographical works.

b. Ḫall. = Ibn Ḫallikān (S. 326), Wafayāt al-A`yān, Būlāq 1299 1) Vitae illustrium virorum, ed. F. Wüstenfeld, Gottingae 1835-40. [vol.1, vol. 15 - there are other vols online] Ibn Khallikans biographical Dictionary translated from the Arabic, by Mac Guckin de Slane, 4 vols. Paris-London 1843—71. [vol.1, vol.2, vol.3, vol.4 I could not find]

Fawāt = M. b. Šākir al-Kutubī (II, 48), Fawāt al-wafayāt, 2 vols. Būlāq 1299.

2. Bibliographical works.

Fihr. = Kitāb al-Fihrist, ed. by G. Flügel, after his death continued by J. Rödiger and A. Müller, 2 vols. Leipzig 1871/2. [I couldn't find this online]

HḪ = Lexicon bibliographicum et encyclopaedicum a Mustapha ben Abdallah Katib Jelebi dicto et nomine Haji Khalfa celebrato compositum, ed. latine vertit et commentario indicibusque instruxit G. Flügel, Leipzig-London 1835-58, 7 vols.  [I could not find vols 1 or 2, vols.3-4, vol. 4, vols.5-6, vol. 6]  Kesf el-Zunun, Birinci Cilt, Katib Celebi elde mevcut yazma ve basma nüshalari ve zeyilleri gözden gecirilerek, müellifin elyazisiyle olan nüshaya göre fazlalari cikarilmak, eksikleri tamamlanmak suretiyle Maarif Vekilligin karari üzerine Istanbul Üniversitesinde Ord. Prof. Serefettin Yaltkaya ile Lektor Kilisli Rifat Bilge tarafindan hazirlanmistir, Maarif Matbaasi 1941.

This is followed by others, of no obvious special use, and then a list of catalogues of manuscripts.  There is a footnote on Ibn Khallikan:

1. As this volume will be cited mainly using the numerals of the Lives, here is a short concordance with that of Wüstenfeld: W. 1-75 = K. 1-75.  Missing in K. are: W. 76, 78, 133, 147, 149, 150, 154, 186-199, 201, 202 (= Fawat I, 145), 213, 214 (= Fawat I, 149), 217, 277, 278 (= Fawat I, 171), 288, 291, 292, 293, 294, 303, 317, 318, 337-347, 364, 380, 381, 528, generally only a single line, occasionally with date of death.  On the other hand 297 K. is missing in W.; 357 was skipped by W. in the count of numbers; 405 W. gives as an appendix to 404 = 367 K. and not separately ennumerated. In the following Lives K. is more detailed than W.: 220 K. = 233 W.; 223 K. = 236 W.; 230 K = 243 233 K. = 246 W.; 248 K. = 261 W.; in the other direction only 242 W. is more detailed than 229 K. On the other hand 181 K. = 186 W.   Because W. reverses the sequence Ha’-Wäw in K., note the following: W. 778-90 = K. 745-57 and W. 791-96 = K. 739-44.

Not that “Wüstenfeld” has been mentioned yet — sloppy editing, this — but fortunately for me I started at the histories, and this was defined at the top of the section, in the middle of p.140, which gave these general sources:

F. Wüstenfeld, Die Geschichtschreiber der Araber und ihre Werke, Abh. d. Kgl. Ges. d. Wiss. zu Göttingen, vols. 28 and 29, 1882/3, (cited as “Wüst.”).

E. Sachau, Studien zur ältesten Geschichtsüberlieferung der Araber, MSOS VII Westas. St. 154/96.  [I could not find this online by title, although it dates to 1905][PS. it's here]

A curiosity appears on p.6, after a long list of catalogues of Arabic manuscripts:

2.  The first attempt to present a complete history of Arabic literature was made by J. Hammer-Purgstall.1)  The shortcomings of this book are so familiar that we may simply ignore it in what follows.  The same is true of Arbuthnot’s work.2)  The short sketch by A. von Kremer 3), however, is masterful and we acknowledge our debt to it.

1. Literaturgeschichte der Araber, von ihrem Beginne bis zu Ende des zwölften Jahrhunderts der Hidschret, 7 vols, Wien 1850-56.  [At Google books: vol.1, vol.2, vol.3, vol.4, vol. 5, vol.6, vol.7]
2. Arabic authors, a Manual of Arabian History and Literature, London, 1890.
3. Kulturgeschichte des Orients unter den Chalifen, vol. II, Wien 1877, p. 341-484.

That’s enough of this highly condensed information for now, I think. All these reference works were very, very rare.  How delighted and excited Dr Brockelmann would have been, to see links to them accessible at the touch of a key!

What I did on my holidays

The silence earlier this week was caused by an unannounced outbreak of holidays.   I didn’t feel that it was a good idea to announce online that my house would be vacant, and I took a very welcome break from using a computer at all.

I finished work on Friday, and then had Saturday free.  This was a good idea, because the number of  things that have to be done in the last week before a holiday tends to leave the unwary exhausted!  So I wandered around like a ghost under grey skies.  I hadn’t actually even decided for certain that I would go away.  But the conviction grew during Saturday, and I packed my bags, filled up the car, and located my lists of “things to take” and “things in the house to check are closed/unplugged/etc”.

On Sunday morning I was up at a sensible time — no dawn starts for me! — and I hit the road about 8:30.  Destination … St Austell in Cornwall! 

I drove down the A12 to London, and then around the top of the M25 London Orbital motorway.  The traffic was light, and I reached the junction with the M4 motorway, near Heathrow, after a couple of hours.  Then westward, westward, as the sprawl of London fell away and the chalk hills of the downs began to rise on either side. 

I stopped at Membury service station, just east of Swindon, where I once had a summer job in 1980.  It was a hole then, and it is still a hole now!  Then on again, past Swindon.  Soon there were signs for Bath, and the Roman baths, which I have never seen.  It’s a long old trip from Ipswich, but one day I must do that. 

Then the great descent towards Bristol, through a cutting in the hill, and I gained my first sight of the Severn.  Soon I turned off, onto the M5, and headed south.  I stopped at Sedgemoor services and refueled again.  Then on, through Somerset, along roads that were not entirely uncluttered with holiday-makers, over the bridge over the River Axe, to Exeter.

At Exeter I turned off onto the A30, which runs the length of Devon and Cornwall, up hill and down dale.  These days it is mostly a dual carriageway, which makes it easier.  Soon the road rose, up onto the moors, which looked as desolate as ever.  A sign appeared for Jamaica Inn, the old smugglers’ hideout on Bodmin Moor.  This is in the centre of the county, but in truth is only a dozen miles from the coast, by the bridleways that were known to local folk.  Those paths saw much use during the Napoleonic wars, when the government duties on wine and spirits were last at the foolish heights they are today.

Finally I reached the St Austell turn off.  A narrow road threaded up through the village of Bugle, all granite stone houses and walls and narrow streets, up to the top of the hills where the china clay used to be mined and a great spoil heap still stands.  Threading through the lanes, I came over the ridge and St Austell bay opened up before me, with an immense view of sea and headlands.  My hotel was the St Austell Premier Inn, which stands at Carclaze, just at the head of the road.  It was 2pm, so I had made very good time over the 350 miles.

A curious Greek-like boat on the grass at Charlestown

The rest of the day I spent pottering about.  I went down to Charlestown, the tiny old port of St Austell, where the china clay used to be loaded and tourism is now the  main thing.  It was grey, but very warm and muggy, even up on the heights at Carclaze.  Indeed I had to change room at 10:30 at night, because my room was at 24C!  Another room looked over the car park, and had a breeze, and was 19C, and there I stayed.

On Monday morning I telephoned various relatives to announce my arrival.  It can be slightly dicey  making your presence known.  Sometimes the relatives see a visiting stranger as a useful source of labour, to get jobs done!  But not so this time. 

In the morning I drove into St Austell, and parked in the new multi-storey car park.  This replaced an appalling specimen of 60′s brutalist concrete architecture, which is now gone to its inevitable, rotted concrete, reward.  St Austell town centre itself is only a shadow of the thriving town that I remember from my childhood.  I could, indeed, find nothing that I wished to buy.

The afternoon was spent with relatives, just talking.  They were interested to see the Eusebius book.  The weather was improving, and the sun breaking through.  I then went down to Charlestown again, where I had dinner and wandered around.  I also drove down to Carlyon Bay, which is the posh end of St Austell.  Everywhere I saw the blue hydrangeas — indeed I was told that they grow like weeds there!  My main purpose was to identify the dismal hotel in which I stayed once, in October, for a funeral, so that I would know never to stay there again.  It was the Cliff Head Hotel, and it looked even more run-down to me than I remembered.  But as I drove back, to my astonishment I saw that mist was gathering on the high ground, up around the spoil heaps and Carclaze.  So it proved; warm air below, and sunshine, and mist and fog a mile away up on the heights.  Apparently this happens regularly.

Crowds on the beach at Looe

In the morning there was bright, hot, sunshine.  Back in Ipswich it was cold and grey, I learned, so this news delighted me!  I had arranged to meet with an elderly aunt, and take  her out for the day.  She chose to go to Mevagissey.  We drove down there, detouring to look at some fields that my grandfather once rented, and a lane in which stood a cottage where my aunt was born, well before WW2. 

Mevagissey was a delight.  It was also flat, which was important for the frail old lady whom I was with.  We parked in the large car-park, and walked into the town and soon found ourselves on the harbour.  The sun beat down, and the smell of the sea was in our faces.  We sat there on a bench for some time — long enough for my arms to prickle and warn of impending sun-burn!  A man drove up on a little blue motorcycle with boxes on the back and, as people do in those parts, got talking to my aunt.  He was off to go fishing in a little boat that was tied up in the harbour.

After more walking around, my aunt stopped at an ice-cream shop where she knew one of the ladies, and asked her where we should eat.  She recommended “number 5, market square” as the best place to eat, and there we went.  And it was!  My aunt had a jacket potato, and I had a ploughman’s lunch.  The furniture was good solid wood, we were served quickly but not rushed, and everything was nice but not pricey.  After that, we drove back.  Again in the evening I went down to Charlestown, and what a difference the sun made!

On the second day, I went to see another relative, to talk about an aunt who had made a will which was giving concern to those who might end up as executors.  A local financial advisor has been appointed co-executor, and nobody knew who he was, or on what terms.  There is, of course, very little that can be done with my more mulish relatives, but after much discussion I formed the opinion that what had been done was sensible in principle, and that the family should be able to involve the financial services regulator if anything amiss transpired.  The main problem, really, was that in making her will, my aunt had been secretive about the details of the executorship which had worried the others who would have to do it all. 

A tall ship heads towards Charlestown, Cornwall, on a flat-calm sea

After all that business — and some third degree from the lady responsible! — I again took the same aunt out for the day.  We drove down the road from St Austell to Lostwithiel, and down to Looe.  The road meandered down the country lanes, and past a sign for “Herodsfoot”.  Some of the place names in Cornwall are a delight, all by themselves!

Looe is more down-market, as evidenced by the number of people sat on benches smoking and indeed tatooed individuals sitting on the (packed) beach smoking.  But we enjoyed ourselves.  Lunch was at a converted pub called the Golden Guinea, where the girls were extremely kind and thoughtful to my old aunt.  Food there was just as good as at Mevagissey, and in some respects better. 

Again in the evening I went down to Charlestown.  The sea was as flat as a millpond.  One of the tall ships had gone out, and was loitering about, offloading people onto a launch and taking on supplies of various sorts.

In the morning, the weather had gone grey, which reconciled me to going home, although I learned that later on it got hot again.  The same trip back, in reverse, took a little longer, and I got home about 3pm. 

And now I’m back home, and it’s cold and grey out there!  But I shall be going back to St Austell again, when I get the chance!

View from Charlestown across St Austell bay to Gribben Head lighthouse

From my diary

Up late last night trying to produce printed copies of a large book which I have in PDF.  I did most of it — will do the rest today.

One nice thing that happened is that an Italian bookshop ordered a copy of Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions.  They’re in the road that leads up to the Vatican, and I expect they’ll sell it handily.  Today I did the order.  I also had to produce an invoice, with bank details for international transfers — IBAN and Swift code, etc.  Let’s see if I did it correctly.

I’ll tell you all about what I’ve been doing for the last few days later on today!

From my diary

I can’t read PDF’s on-screen, and so this evening I’m putting together another PDF to upload to Lulu, so I can get a printed form that I can hold in my hand.

But disaster!  Lulu will only do paperbacks up to around 740 pages, and this one is 1,000 exactly.

I suppose what it means is that I shall have to split it into two halves.  Not a bad thing, necessarily; but it feels a bit odd!

From my diary

One of the few Arabic historians that I know by name is Abulfeda.  This evening I thought that I would see what I could find about him online.

A Google search brought up a rather useless Wikipedia article.  Once I might have edited it, but these days I know better.

But it seemed to be based on an article in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.  This I found online, and it indicated that he wrote two works, a history and a geography.  A French translation of the latter was soon at my disposal, thanks to Google Books.

I found already on my hard disk a “Historia ante-Islamica” of Abulfeda.  Apparently the work has been published in bits.  But I learned of an “Annales Moslemici” by Reiske, in five volumes, from ca. 1800, which covered the rest of the work.  This I could not locate, until I searched on, which is the eurocrats attempt to rival Google Books.  It’s so badly designed, however, that it isn’t always obvious that there is material in PDF for download there.  But a bit of persistence brought me to pages at a German library with it on, and I am downloading it at the moment.  Never know when it might be useful!

I would have added links to the Wikipedia article; but since they would just be deleted by some troll, I don’t see the point.

I did unpack a PDF of Supplement 1 of Brockelmann’s Geschichte, with a view to turning it into a PDF to  upload and get a printed copy.  But I think I will defer it, as I doubt I shall be looking at Brockelmann in the next few days.

UPDATE: I will add some links here.

In addition, doing these searches turned up other interesting material:

Problems in the broadcast media

We’ve all seen the story about the explosion and shootings in Norway yesterday.  I’ve noticed something worrying in the reporting of the story by the BBC and SkyNews on their teletext service, yesterday and today.

Yesterday, the word “Moslem” was not used.  On page 6 of 7 of the SkyNews report a mention was made of the possibility that the attacks were by “al Qaeda”, but quickly qualified by a claim that perhaps it was by “far right” groups.

Today we learn that the attacker was a single man, a Norwegian, supposed to be linked to the “far right”.  The news reports also describe him as a “Christian fundamentalist”.  We’re also told that nothing like this “right wing violence” has ever happened before, which makes it curious that they referred to it as a possibility yesterday.

This is not good reporting. 

Firstly, it’s clear that those writing these reports fully expected Moslem terrorists to be responsible, and were trying not to say so.   That’s a bit dodgy, but we might allow them this, to refrain from speculation, and not stirring up hate against a group which has yet to be found guilty of this specific atrocity, on the basis that to do so is strictly and narrowly reporting the news.  But today, one day on, they don’t feel any hesitation in attributing exactly that to the Christians.  So objectivity there was none.  In short, they were deliberately not reporting the guilt of one party for political reasons. 

That means that we can’t trust their reporting of anything to do with Islam or Moslems.  It means — can it mean anything else? — that there is probably a lot more Moslem violence than we are allowed to hear about.   And we have to ask … what else are we not allowed to hear about?  What other things, other than Islam, are on the list of “may not be mentioned critically”? 

Once a political censorship is in place, and we can show that it is, then we must remind ourselves that we don’t know what is being said.  Our conception of what is normal tends to be formed or influenced by the news media, whether we like it or not.  It is what is NOT said that is important, sometimes.

Now this may seem like an over-reaction, and, in some ways, I hope that it is.  I doubt that every journalist is corrupt!  I don’t suppose that every newspaper has a censor at their office.  But censorship can be imposed in many ways other than a man in a uniform — societal intimidation is one — and anyway … how can we tell?  We can tell that we’re being misled.  The evidence has appeared.

Secondly, I read today that in the 1990′s, with “far right” activity at a high, and voters supporting them, all the Swedish newspapers on the same day published photographs on their front pages of all the members of the relevant political party.  It sounds quite Orwellian — no concerns about “diversity of control of the press” there! — but that is what the BBC reports today. 

But that raises more questions.  With that kind of Goebbels-like orchestrated intimidation directed at a small group by the political establishment, I found myself wondering whether the supposed bomber was really just a fall guy.  Is it possible that this really was an Islamic attack?    If it was, and if this happened … how would we know?  These are the questions you start to ask, once you know that you can’t trust the media.

Let’s not get lost in the political aspects of this.  The issue for me is one of freedom of information, and political censorship.   Whatever our political views, we don’t need this kind of interference with information, whoever does it.  We need more diversity and less censorship.  At the moment the pressure is all the other way.

It is, after all, Christians who have been fingered as responsible for this atrocity.  That means me, you know.  And I’m reasonably sure that I didn’t do it.

UPDATE: I’ve removed material which, interesting as it is, is extraneous to this post.

Not obtaining the catalogue of the manuscripts of Vlatadon in Thessalonika

Back in early June, I ordered, from the French National Library in Paris, by email, a photocopy of the hard-to-find catalogue of the manuscripts of the monastery of Vlatadon in Thessalonika.  It was published in 1918.   This is the library, remember, that had a manuscript of the works of Galen, containing his Peri Alupias (On grief) in which he describes the burning of the libraries of Rome in 194 AD, and also containing complete texts of two other works important for bibliography.  What else might be there?

Today I had a letter — yes, on paper — from that institution.  It only took them 6 weeks.  I presumed that it was a bill. 

Far from it.  It was a letter declining to make a copy, because the work is “in copyright” and demanding that I produce evidence of permission to copy from the publisher or author.

I don’t believe that Greece in 1918 had copyright laws.  At least, it probably did not.  I’m quite sure that the author is dead, and so unable to give me permission.  Probably the printer has long since gone out of business.  In the USA all books before 1923 are out of copyright anyway.  And they don’t say how they “know” that it is in copyright.  I don’t know that, and it seems rather unlikely to me that an author publishing in the 19th century died after 1941, which is the limit even under euro-copyright.

All this the BNF must have known.  So … this is just a jobsworth being difficult.  I imagine that I am the first person in a century to ask to see this obscure item, and instead of supplying it they have waited 6 weeks to make difficulties.  Shame on them.

This, dear readers, is what we all had to go through to get the tools of scholarship, before Google Books.  Let us all give thanks that, for English books at least, the power of the petty bureaucrat and jobsworth to obstruct research has been drastically reduced!

Working with Brockelmann’s history of Arabic literature

Yesterday I started to compile a list of the passages in Galen where he mentions the Christians.  I believe that there are six.  Unfortunately Walzer’s book Galen on Jews and Christians has not arrived, so I had to make do with whatever PDF’s I had. 

Two of the fragments come from Arabic authors of the middle ages.  I had a couple of PDF’s by Sprengling in which he analysed these.  I noticed that he attributed one of them to Agapius, and that other Islamic historians copied him.  But the Patrologia Orientalis edition and translation has no material about Galen! So I suspect that it is the other way around.  For the CSCO edition of Agapius uses material from al-Makin, writing 3 centuries later, on the basis that al-Makin quotes Agapius extensively.  So, far from being present in Agapius and copied by later writers, probably it is present in al-Makin, and al-Makin borrowed the Galen material from Islamic writers!  But that’s a detail.

However it pointed out to me, what has been apparent for some time, that I need to have an overview of the historians and translators of the Islamic period.  

So last night I picked up a pencil and my copy of Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (2nd ed., vol 1 of 2, 1943) and took it to bed with me.  I started looking at the section on the Islamic historians of the post-classical period, and scribbling notes in the margin.

Today I continued by doing the same for the classical period (ca. 750-1000 AD).

It’s a weird book, it really is.  I can only explain its baffling structure by presuming that much of it was composed in an air-raid shelter by people who hadn’t slept properly for six months.

Firstly, and most damningly, it isn’t complete.  I’ve only got volume 1 of the 2nd edition, which covers history up to ca. 1500.  This has numbers in the margin, which look to me like the page numbers of the first edition.

Why on earth would you need these, we might ask?  The answer lies in the text, where, for many writers, there is only a short entry and then “See Suppl. I”.  Or else there is a longish entry, but the list of works by that author consists of numbers 1, 5 and 6; and there is a note “2-4 see Suppl.”.

Brockelmann published his first edition in two volumes ca. 1900.  In the late 30′s he published two volumes of supplements to the first edition, keyed to the page numbers of the first edition.  He published the second edition in 1943.

You or I would imagine that the second edition consisted of the first edition plus the supplements plus some revisions.  But in fact it seems to be just new material, plus some framework words.  So to find all the information on a writer, you need to look in the 2nd ed., then in the supplement volume, and possibly in the first edition also since it is the page numbers of the first edition that are used in the supplement.

This … is appalling.  I can’t understand quite why Brill allowed a book to go out like this, and have left it in this state for 70 years.  If I’d paid $1,000 for the 2nd edition, instead of producing a bound photocopy for my own use, I’d be pretty cross right now.  Fortunately the first edition is on, and the supplements can be found on a site in India.  But I may still need to produce paper versions of these, as I can’t read these kinds of books on-screen.

Nor is this the only problem.  Someone new to the subject will find all the names rather unfamiliar.  The average writer is given as the equivalent of “John son of Bill son of Harry son of John who lived in the Camden Town and was often known as Mad John”.  When you see something of that length, you know, beyond doubt, that no-one repeats all that lot to refer to him.  But in Brockelmann you have to scan the highly abbreviated notes beneath to work out that scholars call that author “the one from Camden Town” in the literature.  Brockelmann does not feel that he needs to indicate this.  I’ve ended up underlining parts of the names so I can tell that (e.g.) this long list of Arabic names is actually “al Tabari” or “al Mahsudi”.

The sins of the author are visited on the reader, and Brockelmann committed many more sins than these. 

Here’s another.  All those names are unfamiliar to the newcomer.  So what he did was abbreviate them, to make them even less recognisable.  Why say “ibn” when you can say “b.”?  Why say “Ali” when you can say “A.”?  Of course, if you are unfamiliar, this means that you can’t even read the name!  And he doesn’t trouble to give a proper decryption key either.  This is unforgiveable, really it is.  We can only be grateful that he didn’t encode the names in Arabic characters as well. But he does his best to be difficult, using a strange version of “h” where normal people write “kh”.

What I take from this is that there  is an urgent need for a new History of Arabic Literature.  It should have the same scope as Brockelmann, but be properly organised, and in English.  The actual entries in Brockelmann are much too brief anyway, and I have no doubt that 70 years has brought many more editions and translations.

If I were an academic working in this area, I would do it.  It would make my name live for a century.  If so bad a book as Brockelmann’s GAL is still the standard reference work, it should be trivial to surpass it.  It could be done in a year or two.

Nor is it necessary to translate Brockelmann, nor desirable to do so.  Retain his structure, yes; and give a marginal reference to his pages.  But it will be far easier to simply write your own text, rather than fight to understand his cryptic notes.

I’d do it myself, except that I have to write software for mobile phone companies and the like in order to pay the electricity bill and so I don’t have the time.  But … come on, chaps.  This is a simple exercise that we could all do.

Meanwhile, I think I shall look at getting a print-off from Suppl. vol. 1!

UPDATE: I’m just looking at the PDF of the supplement, and, in this, he places the important bit of the name in italics!  So he was clearly aware of the issue also.  Again it shows that you can’t even read the GAL pages by themselves.

JSTOR: your articles are mine!

JSTOR, the electronic archive of academic journal articles, has been in the news this week.  A programmer charged with massive theft turns out to be a 24 year old Harvard researcher named Aaron Swartz, who downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR to hard disk, using a script. His identity was known, and JSTOR involved the police:

Swartz was charged with computer intrusion, fraud, and data theft. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 35 years in prison, restitution and forfeiture, and a fine of $1 million. A PDF of the indictment is here.  …

Members of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group Swartz founded, criticized the indictment.

“This makes no sense,” the group’s executive director, David Segal, said in a statement. “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

Today a new twist: 19,000 articles have been leaked to protest the ‘war on knowledge’.

A critic of academic publishers has uploaded 19,000 scientific papers to the internet to protest the prosecution of a prominent programmer and activist accused of hacking into a college computer system and downloading almost 5 million scholarly documents from an archive service.

The 18,592 documents made available Wednesday through Bittorrent were pulled from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, a prestigious scientific journal that was founded in the 1600s, the protester said. Even though the vast majority of the documents are hundreds of years old, the London-based Royal Society charges from $8 to $19 for each one, and restricts viewing to one person on one computer for only a single month.

“If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified – it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge,” Gregory Maxwell, self-described hobbyist scientist from Northern Virginia, wrote in a manifesto accompanying the upload. “One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime.”

Academics and copyright critics immediately criticized the charges as excessive, likening them to trying to put someone in jail for checking out too many library books. They argue that many of the documents in JSTOR’s collection are probably kept behind its paywall against the authors’ will and that there are no valid copyright claims restricting their distribution.

Indeed, court documents charging Swartz contain no claims of copyright violations. Instead, they cite Swartz for intrusion of MIT’s computer network and for impairing JSTOR’s systems by using an automated script that systematically scraped its archive.

In an email to The Reg, Maxwell said he decided against uploading the documents anonymously to prevent anyone from falsely claiming Swartz was behind the move. All of the documents were published prior to 1923 to ensure they are all in the public domain.

The case is an extremely interesting one from many points of view.  The charges are frivolous, since the details of how he accessed the data are, frankly, not the point at issue.  These, clearly, are the best charges that the lawyers could find.

It is interesting — and probably telling — that JSTOR don’t want to put their claim of copyright to the court.  I suspect their lawyers have advised them that there is nothing to gain, that at present almost everyone is respecting their exaggerated but untested claims, and that the only possible consequence of a judge looking over the matter will be to create case law which — since they currently get everything they want — would most likely restrict them in some way.

Maxwell has done precisely the right thing here, in my opinion, and I hope others will follow him.   Let us all, by all means, protest legally in this way.  The Royal Society’s greed — futile greed, because whoever would pay such a sum? — is indeed utterly poisonous.  Nor is the Royal Society alone.  A lot of British tax-funded institutions treat the web as a mechanism to extort money, rather than a means to contribute to society.

At the same time, we need to recognise that JSTOR do have a problem here.  They are not altogether the bad guys.  The problem, succintly, is bad law.  JSTOR are uploading material created, in the main, by scholars paid by the taxpayer.  But JSTOR can’t pay its bills unless it charges.  It can’t charge unless it restricts access to institutions.  One infuriating aspect: while charging you and I to use it — we have, of course, already paid for it once in taxes –, it gives free access to the inhabitants of third-world despotisms.

The answer, surely, is for the government to take over JSTOR and fund it from taxes.  It makes no sense for us to pay scholars to create material, with all the facilities involved, and then pay again to access it via a different mechanism, which restricts access to a few.  Treat it as what it is — a library funded by the public — and remove all the layers of public money going here and there.  It will undoubtedly be cheaper, involve less administration, and benefit the world.

Some might say that academic publishers only allow material on JSTOR because it is subscription, and they get a cut of the cash.  This is probably true.  But this in turn points up how academic publishing is no longer the benefactor of the world that it was in the days of print.  When the only technology for articles was paper journals, these presses performed a service.  But now?  Technology has rendered that distribution mechanism obsolete, and the funding structure that supported it, harmlessly, is now a barrier to access.  This too, I think, will change.

The outcome of the case must be of great interest to all of us.  I do hope that the issues are confronted squarely.

UPDATE: There is a thoughtful article at the New Yorker here. This adds the important detail that JSTOR says that, after calling the cops, it “considered its dealings with Swartz complete” once Swartz had deleted his copies of the download.