Open Access and the Paywall

An unlikely relationship. Seemingly more like arch-enemies in the digital economic landscape as Open Access activists freely oppose the paywall which restricts the everyman to information that apparently “wants to be free”.


A paywall does exactly what it says on the tin: you can’t go through the gate unless you pay to get in. That is unless you’re a super activist who digs the tunnel underneath or climbs over the top.

Paywalls can be subscriptions, such as to Newspapers. This is becoming increasing more common as advertisers are moving away from Newspaper sites and onto cheaper more trafficked websites such as Google and Facebook. The online subscriptions is to help subsidise the declining sales in news print: subscription sales are now about 45% of income, when before it was 20% with advertisers bringing in more income.

Open Access 

Open Access: Gratis – zero cost available content and Libre – zero cost with additional sharing attributes (commonly associated with Creative Commons Licensing)

Gold Open Access: ‘Writers pay publishing’. The journals are free to its users but part of the research grant is dedicated to having the paper published in a journal by the author.

Green Open Access: Authors are allowed to self-archive and publish their work on their own websites for free, IF the publishers allow them to under their gold access terms.

Open Access COlours

Digital activists supporting Open Access

As far back as Stewart Brand from the 1984 Hacker’s Conference when he said “information wants to be free” indicates the movement of people’s attitudes towards accessing information. This movement was somewhat accelerated by Aaron Swartz between 2010-2013 when he founded ‘Demand Progress’ which made citizens aware and active about the US Congress’ “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) which was to censor the Internet from Copyright Infringements. The idea that the US Government actually believed the Internet was ‘out of control’; which to some lengths was true as Aaron led a virtual rebellion, yet it echoed how the Internet is controlled by its users. These great efforts led to an Internet blackout in 2012: 75,000 websites such as Google, WordPress and Boing Boing went black for the day for the #SOPASTIKE.

The libre Open Access revolution is happening.

Open Access Button

Not only is the battle for libre  information accelerating, but the Open Access Button is increasing the awareness and activism to knock down paywalls to information and texts. Users can download the button and click on it when they reach a pay wall. The press is added to their live mapping feature:

Accessed: 13/01/2014
Accessed: 13/01/2014

The Open Access Button is supporting change from grassroots level, just like Aaron Swartz. This can, with sharing, create a campaign which can really make a difference to how we see papers on the Internet. The power to the people is made possible by grouping together in force, virtually and worldwide.

Information is expensive

So, relating back to my research topic in mind: “Archive information wants to be free” I have been looking at the cost to digitise: there is huge value in the information being openly published: it is scarce and therefore can have a monetary value. Yet, archives such as Library of Congress, are publicly funded: taxpayers have already funded the cost to digitise and distribute so why should they pay any more?

This argument has risen many times; however, not more poignant than for Canadians and their national archive as in autumn 2013 it was leaked of a paywall to its digitsed archives:

“ also will also transcribe millions of handwritten pages, and create related descriptions. Enhanced search tools facilitating access to these records will be available to Canadians free of charge at LAC, as well as at hundreds of subscribing libraries in regions across Canada. For a small monthly fee, Canadians will also be able to use the enhanced tools online to conduct advanced searches without leaving home.” Library and Archives Canada

A small monthly fee on top of the tax citizens already pay and have paid to get the archive available in the first place. If Open Access primarily means ‘free or gratis’ then the LAC is not playing in this playground. Information is expensive, yes, and it isn’t necessarily wrong to partner with a private funder; however, the terms of which the contract were signed, has meant that Canadians are left deflated, restricted and out of pocket for ten years.

“Canadiana will charge fees for hosting the content, and at least 10 per cent of the collection will be made freely available online each year. After 10 years, the entire collection will be openly available to the public online.” The Tyee 

This has been marked on by bloggers as a Monopolisation of public property:

“OK, try this on: public-private partnerships are frequently a legal way of stealing citizens’ property and then selling it back to them at a premium. That is to say, not cool.” Bibliocracy

Reading into this and discovering that Canada is perhaps one of the slow runners of the mark when it comes to opening up its public archive, it could be suggested that this panic has actually led to an irrational decision to partner with private investors. What’s the rush? We may ask ourselves.

“While other countries have marched ahead with ambitious projects that often incorporate historical text records, photographs, and video, Canada has fallen behind” Michael Geist

Slowly and slowly I am beginning to disagree that “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable” (Stewart Brand) because users want the information available and free; this will instantly create an abundance of the information, lowering its digital worth. However, this may mean that there is a market for the original document (more on that story later).

David Campbell sites: “Cory Doctorow has argued that the more copies there are in the digital era the more valuable the non-reproducible becomes. This means that as digital copies of images proliferate – making both the image and the photographer better known and creating a community of interest in the process – the more a small but significant number of people will pay for “talismanic items” like signed, limited edition prints.”


“Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington… but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.”

So it’s free. Free information. Awesome! I can only bathe in the brilliance of #DS106, I may be a little bias after meeting Alan Levine during the #Phonar 2013 course. However, #DS106 realised that it cannot run entirely for free and from its contributors: they needed their own server after there was so much traffic going through the old space. This costs money, $2,400 for a year, according to Jim Groom. He understood that its ‘students’ weren’t paying money and received a free digital storytelling education so started a Kickstarter. For every donation, there was a piece of merchandise for the contributor (T-shirt, calendar etc): this meant that the education is still ‘free’ as they were receiving a physical commodity as a thanks for their donation. Kind of confusing-ish. Their cause and service was of value to its receivers: in two weeks the programme fetched over $12,000, three times more than their target. Information wants to be expensive, if you make it worth paying for. DS106 isn’t for profit.

Kickstarter DS106

David Campbell in his article ‘Thinking Freely’ discusses Radiohead as an example, which comes from Chris Anderson’s ‘Free’.

Does this approach work? The experience of the music industry says yes, and Anderson cites the oft-quoted Radiohead model in his book. For their album In Rainbows, Radiohead put it on-line prior to the standard CD release and gave fans the freedom to download then pay what they wanted. Zero was an option and some got it for free while others were prepared to hand over $20. In addition the band offered a deluxe box set at $80 each, and all of the 100,000 available sold quickly. The result was that Radiohead sold three million copies of the album across all formats (online, physical, deluxe), with the money made just from digital downloads prior to physical release exceeding the total from their previous album in all formats. Even more importantly, their subsequent concert tour was the biggest ever, and with the top bands now earning four times as much from events as from selling and licensing music, Radiohead reaped the rewards of extending their reach through free, on-line access to their music.

So, we are now coming to a point that abundant digital information is and should be cheap because of its distribution: however, because there isn’t so much of a physical economy, especially where photography is concerned, then what prints there are, are inherently more valuable.

Click to access Nottingham-colour-guide.pdf

Aaron Swartz Keynote Speech

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