Monday 14 January 2013

Copyright unbalanced: Aaron Swartz dies

Aaron Swartz
Image © Sage
The key to copyright protection has always been to try to find a balance between protecting artists' rights and enabling the public to enjoy and benefit from creative works. This has, in recent years, migrated to balancing the rights of online content providers and users. In an environment where it is easy to copy and disseminate works rightsholders have had to work hard to protect what is theirs, in some instances going too far: this is a balance which has been very hard to get right.

Readers will have heard of Aaron Swartz: a young man who fought to push the balance in favour of internet users, who fought for internet freedom; and who sadly died last week at the age of 26.
Swartz achieved so much in his life: when he was 14 years-old he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification. He was one of the early participants in Y Combinator, and was also instrumental in the early days of Reddit, as his own company Infogami merged with Reddit making him a joint owner after the merger.

In 2010 Swartz founded Demand Progress, a non-profit organisation dedicated to working "to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying". Demand Progress's work has widely been seen as being a catalyst to the internet protests which ultimately caused the defeat of SOPA.  
However in 2011 Swartz was arrested and accused of using MIT's computers to illegally download millions of academic papers from JSTOR, a subscription based platform for scientific and literary journals. Although JSTOR did not pursue the matter, Massachusetts prosecutors did, resulting in a federal case against Swartz and a trial which was due to begin in April. If found guilty Swartz could have been liable for millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison.

In a statement, Swartz's family has said:
"Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable - these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We're grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron's commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

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.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost."

Sir Tim Berners-Lee simply posted on Twitter: "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."
Academics have since taken to Twitter to release their research free in tribute to Swartz, using the #PDFtribute.

Swartz's death is a devastating illustration of what can happen when we get the balance between rightsholders and users wrong. Let's not forget that the purpose of copyright in the US, enshrined in the US Constitution, is "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Copyright is intended to promote progress.
With that in mind, there must be a better way of achieving the balance required for both creators and consumers to benefit from copyright; Aaron Swartz should not have had to die to teach us that.

The New York Times has said of Swartz: "A Data Crusader, a Defendant and Now, a Cause"


Anonymous said...

If only those who promote lawbreaking as a tool of politics would reflect on the consequences when vulnerable people become involved - but it seems unlikely.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add my support to the earlier anonymous. We are all diminished by the death of any individual, but we should not forget that the most appropriate way to change laws in democracies is by legislation, however slow abd frustrating that might somehow be.

Anonymous said...

The blame points back to Lawrence Lessig and the cyberlaw Professors who indoctrinated this talented but very unstable boy.

Anonymous said...

This post starts out with "a balance between protecting artists' rights and enabling the public to enjoy and benefit from creative works" and ends with "the balance between rightsholders and users".

Rightsholders that are not artists/creators are the problem, especially if they are Large Corps. Case in point, mocking us, is the Disney Vault. "Hey, we're locking away all this content behind our own (c)-Wall, for as long as we see fit, and too bad for you if you want it...".