Death of Aaron Swartz Underscores Need for Reforms He Championed

Much is being said about the suicide of Internet pioneer Aaron Swartz, to which I can add little except that it was a tragic end to a brilliant, troubled life. Whatever combination of factors led Swartz to take his own life, it’s clear his death will serve as a grim indictment of the very legal structure he sought to upend—a system designed around older notions of copyright control and enforcement.

“There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands,” Swartz said last year, after helping to stop SOPA. He saw these “traditional things”—outmoded applications of concepts like copyright, DRM, licensing and fair use—as nothing less than a threat to freedom. Though sometimes taking his “hacktivist” work to controversial extremes, Swartz’s actions helped define what’s at stake in the effort to preserve and enhance the critical role of information in our culture even as traditional media companies struggle with radically new business models.

While the rights of content creators and copyright holders are obviously important, it is unhelpful to compare ripping a CD to ripping off a bank, or file downloads to home burglary. Pirating movies is frequently compared (by the movie industry) to stealing a car. This ignores the fact that creative works are never just commodities, and that demand for artistic and scientific ideas can be harnessed for profit in ways that acknowledge and respect the borderless nature of the Internet—working to leverage social sharing for marketing and e-commerce purposes, for instance.

Media entities really have no choice, as each attempt to strong-arm users only leads to embarrassment, or worse. Consider the music industry’s MP3 wars, or the bruising battles over DRM. Already, in the wake of Swartz’s death, influential bloggers are calling for scholars to associate themselves with open-access journals only. This is certainly not what JSTOR (the database hacked by Swartz) wants to see happen.

Swartz was never as extreme as some tried to paint him. He never said regulation shouldn’t exist; he simply understood that new ways of creating, storing and distributing information require a different sort of regulatory scheme. As one of the developers of Creative Commons, he sought new, positive ways to allow for flexibility in the digital sphere.

One thing seems clear: again and again, old laws and existing interpretations prove themselves ham-fisted in the face of the current realities of information access. In the end, Swartz’s life and death proved this to be only too correct.

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  • colltreese

    The demand for intelligent copyright and patent laws has be evident since day one. People want reasonably accessible content and accessible content is good for content creators and good for publishers. The refusal to recognize that demand is not the fault of a million anonymous web users or "radical" information advocates. It’s proof of a broken model.

    There are obtrusive patent laws for nearly web-based or application-based behavior on the web. To see copyright laws reach the same heightened frenzy would be a shame.

    It’s sad to see such a strong user advocate pass.

  • Elliott Brennon

    I’m sorry for the family of Aaron Swartz and their loss.
    I would have had greater respect for Mr. Swartz’s position had he fought the good fight in court.

  • Doug Turner

    "it’s clear his death will serve as a grim indictment of the very legal structure he sought to upend"

    False. It’s clear that even if you don’t like copyright laws, you don’t break them. His death, while tragic, doesn’t alleviate the fact that he chose to break the law.

  • Sanford Thatcher

    Well, for one thing, Swartz’s action in "liberating" JSTOR content would have hurt university presses financially, reducing their ability to publish scholarly books and journals. So it would hardly have been a "victimless" crime. I don’t consider Swartz’s act to be noble: he tried to hide it, and then he tried to avoid paying any legal consequences. Not the kind of way Martin Luther King, Jr., approached social and legal change. His act would have violated the NET Act, which Congress passed in 1997 specifically to cover cases of infringement where the infringer did not gain any financial benefit. I too favor open access, but there are right ways and wrong ways to get there. Swartz chose the wrong way.