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Nothing Personal: How Database Licenses Make Pirates of Us All
July 11, 2011 - 9:30pm

The other day, as I was tracking down the text of a classic article in JSTOR to refer to in a blog post, I was struck by the pop-up box that required me to agree to terms of service before it would let me see the article. I actually read it this time instead of clicking through. It reads:

“Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.”

This is standard database license language, though most databases don’t thrust it in your face every time you search. I understand discouraging people from downloading massive amounts of articles and doing evil things with them, like posting them online for anyone to read or putting them up on torrent sites. I get it. I wouldn’t do that.

But even though I had clicked through that annoying pop up box any number of times, it suddenly struck me as a bit bizarre that in order to see a scholarly article in this paragon of scholarly databases, I have to swear I will do nothing with the material that might be for other than personal, non-commercial use. Does that mean I can’t write about that article I looked up in places like this blog? This is, after all, public, and I just swore I would use the article only for personal use. Whoops! My bad.

Would it mean I couldn’t use JSTOR in research for a book? D’oh! I’m certain I consulted databases when writing a book that earns me a hundred dollars every ten years or so. I should be ashamed of myself.

In the past, libraries didn’t stop you at the door and demand that you agree to a pledge that you won’t in any way profit from your visit or use what you learned when visiting the library for some public purpose. We actually thought – silly us! – that libraries were meant to help you build new things and go public with ideas.

(And crazy founders! They actually thought copyright would promote science and the useful arts! But that’s another story. We’re talking licenses, here.)

Libraries don't set policy for the use of materials, now, publishers and vendors do. JSTOR isn’t quite as strict as some databases. SciFinder Scholar instructs users to contact the company, er, society and pony up for a different service if they are doing research for a consulting job, and users agree that “I will delete stored records when I no longer need them for the relevant research project, or after the completion of my degree program, whichever occurs first.” (Have you purged those citations from EndNote yet? You haven’t? Dude.) And then there are those curious restrictions within restrictions; you are not allowed to place a link to a Harvard Business Review article that your library licenses for campus use in a syllabus, for example. The library pays for campus use - but not that kind of campus use. For that, you pay extra.

Clicking through that little notice is as routine as being instructed every time we fly how to fasten a seat belt. (Seriously: how likely will we pay attention to safety features of an airplane when the instructions start out with “insert the metal tab into the buckle”?) It’s no more likely to lead to reflection than that FBI warning on every video that details the years in jail and fines you might incur. (Five years, to be precise, and $250,000. You should know that by now. You've seen it a million times.) We agree to absurd terms of service all the time and swear we read through agreements that we haven’t. It's part of modern life.

But still: personal use? What does that even mean in a scholarly context?


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