Information Wants To Be Expensive, And At Jstor It Is

by | Jul 25, 2011

The New York Times just introduced me to Jstor, a not–for–profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive of over one thousand academic journals and other scholarly content.

Jstor is in the news because Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old agitator for free access to information on the Internet managed to illegally download more than four million articles and reviews from Jstor, which provides content from the most prestigious — and expensive — scientific and literary journals in the world. Swartz’ act of defiance led to his arrest. He now faces 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for felony counts of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

Mr. Swartz is not a run-of-the-mill hacker, says the Times. He has been known for his computer work since he was 14, when he was involved in developing the software behind RSS feeds, which distribute content over the Internet. At the time the investigation began, he was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, though he was later placed on leave. His friends and supporters are now rallying around him–45,000 have signed a petition on his behalf.

The case against Swartz is a big story, and it’s a blow to the free culture movement. But my interest spiked when I learned that institutions pay tens of thousands of dollars for subscriptions to Jstor, which stands for Journal Storage.

Founded in 1995, Jstor started with 10 journals available to a few American universities and has since expanded to include about 325,000 journal issues available at more than 7,000 institutions. In other words, Jstor is a shining example of a thriving paid content model operating online.

Stewart Brand said, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

With Jstor in one corner (and Swartz in legal trouble), paid content is looking like a pretty tough competitor.