Academic Napster or enabling file storage for open group

I've been thinking about the idea of academic napster, i.e. file sharing of academic literature among peers who do not know one another. Apparently, I am not the first one to consider this. (e.g. But considering the legal consequences Napster had to face, few people are willing to take the idea seriously.

This forum may not be the right place to debate copyright issues but it has everything to do with the current copyright regime. Copyright is supposed to protect authors' rights. But in fact most academic authors do not write for direct payment. We write because we want career development. The more widely shared our works, the more likely our repuation as scholars will grow. Therefore, putting the academic literature under the control of copyright does more harm than good to the academic community as a whole.

In the past two decades, people in the academic community have tried to promote access to academic literature through Open Access Movement. But without directly confronting the traditional publishers (e.g. Elsevier), the majority of the journal articles are still copyrighted materials only available through libraries that have to pay a lot of money for the databases. The OA movement only made about 20% of the literature freely available online. What about the rest of 80%?

As we know, Napster was a file sharing service that enabled users to share files online. It collects information about what files a user has in his/her PC and is willing to share with others. And it makes such information publicly searchable so any other user can locate the files they want and then connect to the user(s) who has the files to make a copy. The system grew popular when it was first released in June 1999 and peaked in Feb 2001. Unfortunately, it ceased operation in June 2001 as it was not able to block access to infringing materials as requested by the court. The company went bankrupt in 2002. While the file-sharing company no longer existed (its brand was acquired), the idea of P2P file sharing has gained much currency in the following decade.

One may argue that copying music files through P2P hurts the artists and producers who need to get paid for their work. (this argument is also controversial as it ignores the promotional benefits of file sharing) It is certainly not the case for academic authors. Most of us do researches sponsored by the governments or other public funding agencies. We do not need copyright to protect our economic interests. (we do need copyright to protect our moral rights, NTL).

So why don't we make a Napster for academics? Apparently, Zotero is in a good position to do that. One possible non-P2P approach is to build a group open to the public and then enable file storage. Currently the file storage function is disabled for public groups. The designers make it this way probably because they want to save the servers from large traffic and also avoid legal actions of copyright holders. So is it possible to build some kinds of Zotero extension/ addons to enable P2P file sharing for academics?
  • To clarify, file storage is disabled only for public, open groups. Public, closed groups allow for file storage. Members must be invited or apply to join. Once logged in, they can access files via a web browser or the Zotero client. Private groups also provide members with full access to stored files. Access to third-party content (and usage of Zotero file storage in general) is governed by the Collaborative Storage for Zotero terms of service.
  • edited January 24, 2011
    The straightforward answer to reflections on these lines is that challenging the copyright rules that underpin closed publishing does not require that they be broken. If open systems of publishing and text sharing are more viable as a medium for academic discourse and exchange, they will succeed and the earlier system will fade away or adapt.

    It takes time, I know, but I'd say that direct challenge, as it were, is not the way to move things forward. We need to show that alternative models work better first.
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