An Important Foreword

I am not advocating in any way for piracy. If you do not have permission to freely share something, you should not share it. It is morally wrong to take somebody else rightfully owned property and put it out for free. You are blatantly stealing somebody's work and giving it to others for free. Do not do that.

Just Kidding Lol

... mostly. Well... it's complicated. No, you should not take somebody's hard work like a video game, piece of music, movie, video, photo, drawing, etc. and distribute it for free or to make money for yourself. People produce art as a labour of love, and you should feel bad for taking credit or freely distributing their work. But I believe there is a serious distinction to be found in academia. You cannot in good sense equate the theft and reupload of works of art to the free distribution of academic papers, textbooks, and other knowledge.

Guerrilla Open Access is Ethical

Swartz in 2009 Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup in 2009.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

These were the beautifully simple words of Aaron Swartz, an American programmer and devoted advocate of open-access until he tragically died 2013. Aaron Swartz was one of the most prominent advocates of open-access knowledge his entire life. He was arrested a year after 2010 incident where he used MIT's network to download hundreds of thousands of academic articles from JSTOR, a large digital library of academic journals. After refusing a plea bargain of 6 months in federal prison, and after the prosecution rejected his counter-offer, he hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment on the 11th of January 2013. His girlfriend told the Wall Street Journal that Aaron didn't have the money to afford a trial, and he did not want to ask for help. She also said he was stressed because two of his friends were subpoenaed, and he did not believe that MIT would try and stop his prosecution. In June of the same year he was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame as an Innovator.

Swartz's words are even more important today. As more and more academic journals are locked behind prohibitive paywalls or subscriptions, and as the prices of textbooks skyrocket, it becomes clear that free and open knowledge will become scarcer in the coming years. With academic publishers like RELX (formerly Reed Elsevier) holding over £14 billion in assets in 2020, it is more than clear that there is a paywall on knowledge.

So what can you do? Pirate. Pirate your ass off. If you have scholarly or employer-based access to academic data like white papers or textbooks, take it. Large corporations are not blinded by greed, they are fueled by it. You cannot call the act of making a copy of a work of knowledge stealing. You are assisting in the free distribution of knowledge and sharing with others the greatest aspect of the human species: learning. If physical libraries can freely distribute copies of fictional works, then online libraries should be allowed to freely distribute knowledge without hinderance by law or by ethics. You are not in the moral wrong if you make a copy of a textbook or academic paper. You are simply giving others the same opporunity to learn and grow that you are afforded.

I will leave you with the words of Aaron Swartz in his 2008 letter Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Further Reading