Tag Archives: Aron Swartz

The making of a martyr?

Steal this work.

In July of 2011 I wrote about the case of Aron Swartz, arrested at the time for stealing more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution service.  I wasn’t too sympathetic, but admitted that I knew very little about the case. Everyone reading this knows by now that Swartz committed suicide at age 26 yesterday, January 12th.

I still don’t know much about the case, but I do know a lot more about how federal prosecutors operate, mainly, and I know a lot more about how we’ve reached a point where we have an Administration that has allowed U.S. law enforcement to become, to the extent it hasn’t already made it, a private enforcement agency for Big Content, or even just big anything — and how little the federal courts care about it, to the extent they aren’t all in.

I’m not a defender of Swartz’s actions still.  He did steal that stuff.  Information doesn’t “want to be free” — it’s stuff, and it wasn’t his to free.  I think he should have gotten in trouble.

But as Patterico’s Pontifications points out in an exclusive interview with Swartz’s lawyer, the government had — as it does — gone way, way over the top here.  A quote from the Swartzes:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Again, I’m not too impressed by “cherished principles” of stealing stuff.  It’s not “only information” — information is pretty much the most valuable stuff there is these days.

Okay, maybe not the stuff on JSTOR.  But that is certainly not the point.

Think of it this way:  On the one hand, as we saw in connection with Righthaven, we have judges getting fed up with parties suing defendants for preposterous damages on top of attorneys’ fees for stealing that kind of stuff — essentially worthless (financially speaking) copyright-protected material.  That’s reasonable, because suits like that are abusive, out of hand.  Intellectual property infringement is a tort.  Sometimes it’s a crime.  But it’s …

It’s just IP infringement.  And just as no one should lose his livelihood for reselling tanning lotion on the Internet or give up his home for downloading six songs illegally, no one should have to face the prospect of being caught in the maw of the relentless federal “justice” machine for the rest of his life just because he took a big bunch of information and “let it be free.”

Especially not that stuff.

Sorry, but while I’m not about to make a hero, or a martyr, out of Aron Swartz, I have no trouble saying that copyright is not worth anyone’s life.

The continuing STOR-y

Steal this work.

I barely had time to get my arms around the story of Aron Swartz, who was arrested for downloading a ton of stuff off the J-STOR academic papers website and… well, downloading them, see.  The FBI says it was criminal, but it’s far from clear; in the words of Demand Progress — whose agenda is not exactly mine, but still, they put it pithily here:  ”[I]t’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”  It will certainly be an interesting case.

Well what I was saying was I had barely any time to get my arms around it when along came this just now from Gigaom:

A user called Greg Maxwell just uploaded a torrent with 18,592 scientific publications to The Pirate Bay, in what appears to be a protest directed both at the recent indictment of programmer Aaron Swartz for data theft as well as the scientific-publishing model in general. All of the documents of the 32-gigabyte torrent were taken from JSTOR, the academic database that’s at the center of the case against Swartz. . . .

As I tweeted when I first saw this earlier today, “Things are moving fast. But where are they going?”  Maxwell is quoted in Gigaom as follows:

Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The “publish or perish” pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.”

Protest part?  I get it.  Exploited authors?  I hear you.  Take the law into your own hands and steal a bunch of stuff because you think the business model is dead and you have a better idea?

Well, I’m a lawyer.  I’m not going to like that.  Moreover, civil disobedience is a lot less impressive as a bold statement of principle when it’s done anonymously – ”Greg Maxwell” appearing not to be a real name. (See comment #3 below.)

Here’s an interesting angle on the story, by the way.  Again, same article:

Maxwell goes on to explain that he initially planned to upload the documents to Wikipedia. But then he looked into the legality of the situation, and realized that he could get sued by publishers who’d claim that merely scanning the documents or adding a watermark gave them new copyright protections.

It would be a real shame if all this comes down to such a gross misapprehension of copyright law.  Did “Maxwell” ask anyone about this or did he just “look into the legality” via a crystal ball?  You can’t even claim copyright in scans of art or graphic works — notwithstanding claims that you prettied ‘em up and all. Scans of documents, much less if they in turn rendered into searchable text (I don’t know if this is the case with JSTOR documents, or if it is the case with some of them) certainly lack the modicum of creativity necessary for copyright protection.  Watermark?  No, I don’t think so.

It sounds more likely that Maxwell didn’t want to get involved with what Wikipedia would have to say about the whole thing.  As I said, I still don’t know where this anarchic trend is going.  But it doesn’t say much for the future of copyright — FBI or not.

UPDATE:  Aaron Swartz killed himself.