Have you ever heard of Aaron Swartz? If you’ve heard of Reddit, you are at least familiar with his work. Aaron Swartz had done many newsworthy things in his short career. He worked on the early architecture of Creative Commons, co-authored RSS and even co-founded Reddit. More amazingly, he did it all before he was 21.
In 2011, Swartz was arrested after downloading almost 5 million articles from JSTOR. Most recently, Swartz has been in the news after taking his life on January 11th, 2013. Discussion about whether or not overzealous federal prosecutors had anything to do with Swartz’s decision to end his life followed closely behind. The federal prosecutors held that Swartz had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 and deserved jail time. Aaron Swartz was 26.
But there’s a much bigger picture to consider beyond the alleged theft of the JSTOR articles that led to all of this. The case pursued against Swartz – pursued entirely by the United States Attorney’s Office rather than by the wronged parties (MIT and JSTOR – both took no action) – raises some serious doubts about the laws that govern intellectual property in America. Or at least additional doubts as we face down an academic publishing crisis complete with hyperinflation of access costs and increasingly aggressive litigation by publishers.
Aaron Swartz was instrumental in shutting down 2012’s SOPA bill, but there’s still a long way to go before our 20th century intellectual property laws actually reflect the realities of technology and information in the 21st century.