Aaron Swartz’s legacy

January 13th, 2013

Government zealotry in prosecuting brilliant people is a repeating theme. It gave rise to one of the great intellectual tragedies of the 20th century, the death of Alan Turing after his appalling treatment by the British government. Sadly, we have just been presented with another case. Aaron Swartz committed suicide at his apartment in New York this week in the face of an overreaching prosecution of his JSTOR download action. I never met him, but I understand from those who knew him well that he was a brilliant, committed person who only acted intending to do good in the world. I’m on the record disagreeing with the particulars of the open access tactic for which he was being prosecuted, on the basis that it was counterproductive. But I empathize with the gut instinct that led to his effort. I hope that it will inspire us all to redouble our efforts to eliminate the needless restraints on the distribution and use of scholarship as Swartz himself was trying to achieve.

2 Responses to “Aaron Swartz’s legacy”

  1. The Opportune Moment: Why and How To Leverage Unexpected Events | Peer to Peer Review Says:

    [...] code of ethics that tells me that aside from trespass (which I can’t endorse, any more than does Stuart Shieber) I belonged in Swartz’s position—it’s my job to “advocate balance between the interests of [...]

  2. Rebecca Gould Says:

    Like many, I have been reflecting deeply on the implications of Swartz’s actions, and I was only recently struck by something that seems worth noting, as it has not been discussed elsewhere.

    In his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” Swartz specifically states that his project of uploading materials refers to works that are “out of copyright,” and in numerous statements elsewhere he states that he is a strong believer in copyright protection.

    This doesn’t seem to have registered with commentators prior to the events of 2011, and no doubt Swartz himself is partly to blame, as he had a tendency to formulate even the most moderate of visions in radical terms (part of his brilliance).

    My guess is that he never at any point intended to distribute anything that was copyright-protected. His idea, I think was to upload public domain materials, and the “secret archives” seem to refer to the government archives which he made publicly available just a few months later. These materials were not really secret, they were just behind a paywall, so calling them secret was a bit rhetorical. This act of his–not the JSTOR incident–is widely regarded as a public service that didn’t have negative consequences. I don’t think his idea in the manifesto was to encourage people to violate any federal law.

    Alas, Swartz was never given the chance to explain himself. But this reading seems to me consistent with his writings and lectures.