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More Thoughts on Aaron Swartz

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Open-access people, meet the copyright laws. Much has been written about Aaron Swartz, the computer genius who killed himself after being charged with a variety of cybercrimes. Some ardent friends accuse the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of having cruelly called in the police to deal with him.

By then, MIT had foiled multiple attempts to illegally download academic journals and realized that someone had broken in to a wire closet to achieve the same end. MIT security analysts had also detected activity from China on the netbook being used, making them extra wary.

MIT had no idea who it was at the time -- not that this should have made a difference. But some Swartz defenders argue that the tech prodigy rated special treatment.

"When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, (he) might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a computer company. But they called the cops on him. Cops," said an apparently shocked Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive digital library.

The infantilizing culture of academia has led some university wards to expect leniency when they misbehave. In any case, Swartz wasn't playing with databases. He was trying to strip them of their economic value. Also, for the record, he was not an MIT student. He was a 26-year-old with a fellowship at Harvard. And if he had been an undergrad, so what? MIT isn't day care.

Swartz's mission was to "liberate" the databases owned by JSTOR, a nonprofit subscription service selling access to academic journals. Many open-access agitators hold that JSTOR has no right to charge money for its wares, copyright law notwithstanding. Odd that some of his most vocal defenders are book authors dependent on copyright protection for their livelihoods.

Aha, they rationalize, the professors, unlike them, are paid by the universities, so ripping off this material doesn't hurt the creators. Two problems with that. One is that it's still copyrighted. And by the way, academic journals cost money to produce.

The other problem is that JSTOR does enhance the professors' income in indirect ways. Publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals provides a basis for promotions and funding. Of course, there's nothing stopping the scholars from bypassing the academic journal system and putting their papers online for free. But then they'd be competing for credibility with a zillion blogs and the Drudge Report.

Let me confess that I've shared the frustration of hitting against JSTOR's pay wall when trying to obtain an academic article online. I want it for nothing. Who doesn't? If the cyber-innovators can come up with a new ecosystem for freely disseminating peer-reviewed scholarly articles, thereby bypassing JSTOR -- and without stomping on anyone's intellectual property rights -- more power to them.

Swartz was clearly engaging in an act of civil disobedience. He tragically lacked the emotional toughness to accept its consequences. Or he assumed that an esteemed member of the Cambridge tech community would float above them.

JSTOR officials were so enraged at the attack that they blocked MIT's access to its database for a few days, while lashing out at MIT, according to news reports. But on learning who it was, JSTOR decided not to pursue the case. As another sop to the free-culture community, it opened some of its archives for free reading.

MIT has maintained more dignity. It expressed sadness for Swartz's death and started an investigation of what happened, but thus far it has not apologized. And should not. The school is full of young geniuses with outsized ideas of their specialness. MIT is doing them a favor by making clear that serious crimes against property could bring in the cops.


See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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