#icanhazpdf and related criminal behavior

I was slow to start watching "Better Call Saul" for various reasons. Partially because I still haven't finished "Breaking Bad", partially because I couldn't see *that* as being the spinoff character and partially because I just hadn't gotten around to it. Anyway, the show is about a lawyer who we know from BB becomes deeply involved with criminal law.

There's a point in Season 1 where one character has a heart to heart with another character about the second person's criminal act.

"You are a criminal."

He then goes on to explain that he has known good guy criminals and a bad guy cops and that at the end of a day, committing a crime makes you a criminal.

Anyway, dr24hours has some thoughts for those criminal scientists who think they are good guys for illegally sharing PDFs of published journal articles.

22 responses so far

  • JS says:

    Copyright infringement is a civil matter. Those sharing PDFs are criminal scientists in the same sense that jaywalkers are criminal pedestrians.


  • qaz says:

    Do you really want to lump civil disobedience with true criminality?

    I'm pretty sure that those meth dealers were not doing it because they thought the law was immoral and that a change in the law would make the world better for everyone. I would challenge that there are cases where people are only criminals because of an unjust law. And that you don't want to conflate the two.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This is only "unjust" if you think all laws that favor the owners of the means of production (and there are many) are unjust, dude. Maybe you do but....good luck changing that.

  • dr24hours says:

    Calling illegally sharing copyrighted PDFs "civil disobedience" is such self-serving faux-nobility claptrap. It's laziness and entitlement. You're not Rosa Parks.

  • Ola says:

    It's not an excuse, but I do think the argument about this at some point has to consider the scummy low-life practices that comprise a big part of the academic publishing business itself.

    This is a business that, having gotten the raw material for free, uses free labor to process it, charges large fees for the privilege, and then sells the product back to the customer via cartel-like package bundling. It's a business that collectively draws in >$30bn a year with a 40% profit margin (bigger than Google or Apple or any other company that actually, you know, innovates). Then, as well-documented by Twitt @rmounce, they frequently get caught with their pants down charging for free open access papers!

    What? They're having their business model disrupted by some people breaking the law? Cry me a mother fucking river! This is going to play out the same way as the music industry, where the profit-laden scum known as the RIAA made themselves a target, resulting in the birth of Napster, and we all know what happened next.

    The message to the big publishers is not "you should be put out of business", it's "innovate or die". By their business practices, they essentially built the system that fomented this level of resistance - they have made themselves a target. If the big publishers want us to stop sharing their product for free, they have to make the case that the product is actually WORTH more than zero! Here are some suggestions:

    1) Add value. For example, earn their title as gatekeepers of knowledge by taking ethics seriously and USING the available forensic tools for fraud detection, instead of half-assed initiatives like COPE. Add new features that are platform-wide (e.g. integration of PubMedCommons and PubPeer comments. What about the ability for PDFs to have updates pushed to them after download? What about getting rid of page limits? What about speeding up the whole submit-review-accept cycle so it doesn't take 3-24 months?) These are all things that individual journals are doing some of the time. The industry has to figure out a way to do all of it all of the time, in a seamless manner that integrates with existing tools (PubMed) and doesn't require countless proprietary platforms and individual products and log-in IDs.

    2) Try innovative pricing schemes. The cable TV industry is imploding, because it learned the hard way that customers don't like package bundles. Why is a-la-carte journal pricing not an option for libraries? Why not charge $1 per download like iTunes? I could quite easily justify a $1000 a year literature access budget for myself, paid off a grant. If each paper is $37, you're price gouging and I will not pay, so you get zero. Why not make "points" earned for peer review "spendable" across the board at other journals and publishers?

    3) Do something to indicate a commitment to giving back to the community. Maybe try investing profits in library initiatives for poorer communities, STEM education in poor school districts, etc. (see Google funding aging research, Apple product RED! or Bill & Melinda gates foundation for examples of how other tech' companies buy public favor in this way). Why not give a free download to a poor country when someone in the US buys a download at full price? Why not make price promotions during important times in certain fields - cheap neuroscience papers during SfN meeting week, cheap cardiology papers during AHA sessions week.

    Tl/DR - There's a LOT that the publishing industry could do to diffuse some of the anger that is undoubtedly driving this "law breaking". If they want the public to buy into their "we add considerable value" argument, we're going to need to see a lot more evidence of that, and quickly.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Rosa Parks was technically a criminal as well. When laws are stupid, the correct thing is to break them because when enough people do the laws get changed. Laws exist to serve society; society does not exist to serve laws.

  • PaleoGould says:

    Largely agree with Ola here. The opportunity exists for a savvy commercial publisher to undercut both legacy publishers and OA wakaloons, in the same way that iTunes made illegal file sharing niche through convenience and ease of use.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I can see that PG. $100? $500?

  • jmz4 says:


    Generally, I agree, just email the author, or your librarian, and they'll find a way to get the paper to you.

    There is one particular case where I think restrictive journal practices are bad for society, and that is where a big, high-profile study gets published and reported on in the media. I don't like the message it sends that lay people can't even attempt to read the paper on its own and decide its merits. I also doubt that many of the people involved in the dissemination of the story(like bloggers) have direct access to the paper, which means their doing the equivalent of sharing Facebook gossip.

  • dr24hours says:

    Comparing#icanhazpdf vigilantes to actual civil rights leaders, favorably, is appalling and obscene.

    If you REALLY think you're like them, you should be prepared, as they were, to suffer the legal consequences when you're caught. Also, you should exhibit some basic dignity, as they did.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    What is appalling and obscene is people seriously defending the publishing industry's rules when they don't even stand to benefit from them. I can sort of understand this sort of thing coming from the "Scholarly Kitchen" -- they are thinking of their own livelihoods after all. But I seriously can't understand people who are obsessed with rules for the sake of rules rather than the societal reason behind them. What would be the worst case scenario for society if everybody joined #icanhazpdf? Elsevier going bankrupt? Would that be such a tragedy?

  • drugmonkey says:

    The rule of law is appalling and obscene JB? Wow.

  • jmz4 says:

    "What is appalling and obscene is people seriously defending the publishing industry's rules when they don't even stand to benefit from them. "
    -Some of us have friends and colleagues who are editors, so no, I don't want them to go bankrupt.
    I don't think it's some saintly endeavor. Its somewhere between Napster/torrents and Wikileaks on the balance of social good vs. punkassery.
    I hope it pushes some journals to change their publishing and licensing practices, but I don't dispute their right to set those practices.
    As dr24hours says, you signed their agreements. Which are ludicrously easy to get around, by the way.

    Also, I always assumed it was for getting at those few areas University subscriptions don't all cover. Are people actually trying to replace subscriptions with this? It seems unwieldy.
    I'd much rather someone put together a torrent of pdfs organized by subject. Like maybe cull the references from a review and bundle them.
    If I were inclined to do that sort of thing.

  • Ola says:

    exhibit basic dignity as they did

    Such as what? Blogging and commenting behind a pseudonym? Accusing others of conflating themselves with civil rights activists (when in fact no such conflation was present - read carefully again), and then calling people appalling and obscene? Labeling those who see an injustice and decide to chip away at in in their own little way as "vigilantes"?

    Yeah man, way to show dignity! I guess we should all just sit back and take it in the ass from Elsevier et al. "with dignity". Heaven forbid actually acknowledging that the big publishers threw the first punches long ago and bought a 55 gallon drum of lube to the party!

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    There is no such thing as a general "rule of law". Laws aren't worth obeying merely because they are laws. Many laws are just formalizations of generally accepted moral laws like the prohibition on murder, and the vast majority of people refrain from murder not because it is illegal but because their own moral code tells them not to. In these cases the law exists in order to protect society from the tiny minority whose moral code doesn't see it as a problem.

    But other laws clearly only exist because corporations bribed politicians to enact them. They don't serve any useful purpose to society other than help the business model of the sponsoring corporations (who ironically often claim to be supporters of the "free market" and complain about government interference when it doesn't help them). They aren't the same thing as the first kind of law at all.

    People who think laws are worth following merely because they are laws remind me of the type of Christian who doesn't understand why atheists don't just run around raping and murdering and taking the Lord's name in vain. As if all of these were the same sort of thing and the only reason to not do the the first two was because all three are punishable sins.

  • poke says:

    "Its somewhere between Napster/torrents and Wikileaks on the balance of social good vs. punkassery."

    Holy shit! Me posting my own work on my website is the same as stealing music I didn't purchase or create? AYFKM?

    To continue with the music analogy, are you OK with artists not being able to post their songs on their websites, if they so choose, without permission from their label's legal department? How about a few samples at least? How about posting just the lyrics? How about live performances?

    Does your policy on this affect how you give talks? You know, that figure you collected and analyzed the data for belongs to value-adding fairies at Cell Press; it's not yours! You better not be publicly displaying published figures to room full of people, blatantly disregarding our noble copyright laws which keep us all safe from chaos and disorder, unless they're clearly watermarked with the journal logo, and you've secured written permission from the publisher for an oral presentation, and your prostrate yourself before and after displaying each copyrighted figure in the general direction of Elsevier's corporate headquarters.

    And don't even think about taking John Wiley's name in vain.

    These closed-access wackaloons...

  • baltogirl says:

    Agree completely with OLA. It is really not fair for us to have to pay many thousands each year in publishing costs when we review for free- I even have to pay full publication costs for a journal on whose board I serve (and get 1-2 manuscripts every month to review for a five year term).

  • another young FSP says:

    I don't publish open access because I can't afford it on my grants - which tells you something about the per-article cost of the publication process.

    I want journals to survive because the peer review process adds significant value (even if we all disagree with Reviewer #2) and only works with significant effort by knowledgeable editors to coordinate (even if reviewers work for "free" - which is actually not free, but is reciprocal benefit in trade for having others review their papers in turn, subsidized by our institutions/grants/whoever is paying salary), and because the final proofed papers are much, much, much prettier and more readable than submission copies.

    There is no free ride. Those who don't pay the costs to support the system raise the costs on everyone else, which is a total a**hole move.

  • jmz4 says:

    You realize all those things are retained rights under the "scholarly use" clause of most copyright agreements with journals (e.g. Elsevier)?

    The #icanhazpdf people are sharing other people's pdfs, no not really the same thing. They're taking something they had no involvement in creating or

  • dr24hours says:

    This thread reveals a couple of important things: People don't know how to argue, because they're arguing against many things I never said. Some academics are idealistic revolutionaries who do not care for stable societies (this is not actually news). Almost no one seems to know what "fair" means. And academics are no more immune to rationalization than the worst of pseudoscience hucksters.

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