Swartz’s Death Places Spotlight on More Open Access To Information

The Internet community has been reeling for the past week as it grapples
with the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a prominent digital rights activist
who left a remarkable legacy for a 26-year old. Swartz’s contributions
are used by millions of people every day as he played a key role in
developing the specifications for RSS (which makes it easy to syndicate
online content), Creative Commons licences (which makes is easy to make
creative works freely available), and the popular website Reddit.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that while much of the immediate focus has centered on mental health issues,
draconian computer crime laws, and the bewildering prosecution of Swartz
for downloading millions of academic articles – a U.S. prosecutor was
seeking as much as 35 years in jail despite the fact that Swartz did not
benefit from the downloads and the source of the articles did not want
to pursue legal action – the more notable legacy was his effort to make
information more openly and freely available.

Swartz aggressively pursued initiatives to increase the availability
of information, particularly scientific and legal documents. His
efforts were controversial, yet they point to mounting expectations
that public information (or information funded by the public) be
made easily accessible.

In recent months, there have been some important developments in
Canada in furthering Swartz’s vision.  The Canadian Institutes
of Health Research, the federal government’s health research funding
agency, recently launched a new open access policy that
requires funded researchers to make their peer-reviewed publications
freely available within 12 months of publication. Given the millions
of tax dollars invested in CIHR research annually, the mandatory
open access policy should ensure that the public has access to the
cutting-edge health research it has helped fund.

Open availability of legal materials is also fast becoming the
standard in Canada. The Canadian Legal Information Institute
(CanLII), which is Canada’s leading source of free legal materials,
now houses more than one million court judgments as well as tens of
thousands of legislative documents from all Canadian provincial,
territorial and federal jurisdictions. Canadian lawyers, who pay an
annual fee to maintain the site as part of their dues, provide the
financial support to ensure that CanLII is sustainable (I am a
CanLII board member).

After years of limited progress, digitization efforts in Canada are
also beginning to bear fruit.  The Internet Archive Canada,
which has teamed with academic libraries across Canada, recently
announced that it has digitized over 400,000 texts in Canada.
Although relatively unknown, the Internet Archive Canada now boasts
the largest online collection of Canadian public domain materials
since virtually all copyright-expired books in the University of
Toronto library have been digitized and are freely accessible and

The question facing many Canadian institutions is what comes
next.  For academic research, the CIHR open access policy
should be emulated by the other federally funded granting
institutions so that all taxpayer-funded research features a
requirement that the resulting publications be made openly available
to the public within months of publication.

Access to legal materials has been a major success story, yet much
more can be done. Legal publishers are beginning to make some of
their texts freely available and law schools may soon rely on free,
online cases as their primary source for legal casebooks. As those
materials gravitate online, the pressure is likely to mount to
ensure all Canadian cases and statutes are freely available, thereby
granting the public full access to the law.

Yet perhaps the biggest step may come as part of efforts to move
digitization efforts beyond public domain works toward the creation
of a national digital library featuring millions of Canadian titles.
Such an initiative would undoubtedly face implementation challenges
with respect to copyright (it would likely rely on the newly
expanded fair dealing laws), but the vision of universal open access
in Canada seems increasingly possible and is consistent with the
vision to which Aaron Swartz dedicated his life.

via Michael Geist Blog http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/6762/135/

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