News Release

Aaron Swartz: Scientific Legacy “Locked up by a Handful of For-Profit Corporations”

Forbes reports “‘Aaron’s Law’ Suggests Reforms To Computer Fraud Act (But Not Enough To Have Protected Aaron Swartz).”

Glenn Greenwald recently wrote: “A petition on the White House’s website to fire U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz quickly exceeded the 25,000 signatures needed to compel a reply.” Yesterday, Ortiz finally addressed the case, claiming “At no time did this office ever seek — or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek — maximum penalties under the law,” while making no mention of perusing felonies. Boston station WCVB reports: “Swartz’ lawyer, Elliot Peters, said prosecutors were insisting he plead guilty to all 13 felony charges and serve four to six months in prison or go to trial and face up to 35 years. Swartz rejected that offer, saying he didn’t want to be branded a felon.”

But even individuals who have severely criticized the government for its conduct have not fully backed Swartz’s actions. For example, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig attacked the government’s conduct as “bullying” but also said what Swartz did — download millions of academic articles from JSTOR with the alleged intention of making them free to the public — was “morally wrong.” In 2008, Swartz had released about 20 percent of the entire PACER database of United States federal court documents.

But some noted analysts have questioned the current form of copyright as intolerably burdensome, with Swartz’s actions being tantamount to civil disobedience:

Visiting scientist at MIT, Stallman said today: “Copyright is unjustly restrictive. People need more freedom in their use of published works. It’s clear that Aaron Swartz was working for that goal in his actions regarding JSTOR and PACER. I’m not for totally ending copyright, but the way it is now implemented does not foster more innovation, it furthers the profits of publishers.” See Stallman’s article “Misinterpreting Copyright — A Series of Errors.

Stallman has pioneered the notion of copyleft and is founder of the Free Software Foundation. See a speech by Stallman on copyright.

DEAN BAKER, via Alan Barber, [email]
Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He wrote the piece “Aaron Swartz: A Tragic Early Death,” which states: “I knew Aaron because he e-mailed me with questions about some of my writings. After reading my book The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, he asked me why we hadn’t made it available in html. When I told him that no one on my staff had the time, he volunteered to do it himself. We continued to occasionally exchange e-mails and met in person a few times. He clearly was a serious, committed person. …

“It would be an appropriate tribute to Aaron if his death prompted a re-examination of copyright and patent laws. These laws are clearly acting as an impediment to innovation and progress. If economists had the allegiance to efficiency that they claim, and not just serving the rich and powerful, the profession would be devoting its energies to finding more modern mechanisms for promoting creative work and innovation.

“Unfortunately most economists are comfortable with the status quo, regardless of how corrupt it might be. Let’s hope that Aaron’s tragic death can be an inspiration to revamping intellectual property and making a better world.”

Background: See Baker’s piece “The Surefire Way to End Online Piracy: End Copyright.

Also, see his report “The Artistic Freedom Voucher: Internet Age Alternative to Copyrights.

From a speech by Aaron Swartz in 2010 at the University of Illinois: “I am going to give you one example of something not as big as saving Congress, but something important that you can do right here at your own school. It just requires [being] willing to get your shoes a little bit muddy. By virtue of being students at a major U.S. university, I assume that you have access to a wide variety of scholarly journals. Pretty much every major university in the United States pays these sort of licensing fees to organizations like JSTOR and Thomson and ISI to get access to scholarly journals that the rest of the world can’t read. And these licensing fees are substantial. And they’re so substantial that people who are studying in India, instead of studying in the United States, don’t have this kind of access. They’re locked out from all of these journals. They’re locked out from our entire scientific legacy. I mean, a lot of these journal articles, they go back to the Enlightenment. Every time someone has written down a scientific paper, it’s been scanned and digitized and put in these collections.

“That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work, the history of scientists. It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up and put online by a handful of for-profit corporations who then try and get the maximum profit they can out of it.” [Audio]

There has been an outpouring for Swartz on the Internet since his reported suicide on Friday, including a torrent of postings by professors of their academic papers in tribute to Swartz. See: