Books

Book Review

Aaron Swartz and copyright wars in the Internet age

Internet innovator and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013.
Noah Berger/Reuters/file 2008
Internet innovator and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013.

Aaron Swartz wasn’t cut out to be a criminal, a realization that came much too late.

Swartz, Internet innovator and political activist, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment in January 2013. His death came two years after he’d been caught sneaking onto the data network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and illegally downloading millions of academic research papers.

It was a crime of principle. Swartz believed that scholarly papers should be freely available to the public. He believed it so strongly that he broke the law, thinking little of the consequences. After he discovered that those consequences would probably include a stint in federal prison, Swartz took his own life.

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Swartz is a particularly tragic casualty of a conflict as old as the Gutenberg Bible. When copycats can easily republish the latest Charles Dickens novel or Adele CD, how will artists and publishers get paid? But laws to protect intellectual-property rights can cripple the free exchange of ideas.

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Justin Peters seems as helpless as the rest of us to resolve this dilemma. But in his lucid and witty new book, he ably sketches the contours of the dilemma.

Peters places Swartz’s well-meant misdeeds in historical context, showing how this young man was one of many smart, ambitious combatants on both sides of the copyright wars. Noah Webster, best known for creating the first dictionary of American English, was arguably the father, or at least the godfather, of American copyright law. Arrogant, irascible but relentless, Webster lobbied for decades for federal statutes to ensure that writers could enjoy the exclusive right to profit from their work.

Copyright was intended to guarantee that writers would benefit from the fruits of their labor and serve as a spur to literary excellence. Additionally publishers regarded intellectual property laws as a bulwark against unwanted competition and a way to ensure a constant stream of revenue from profitable properties.

Most people agreed that there should be limits to the ownership of intellectual property. Products of the mind should eventually enter the public domain, to be freely copied by anybody. But how long is “eventually”? Under the first US copyright law, a book was protected for 14 to 28 years; after that, it became public property. But in response to aggressive lobbying by publishers, Congress has granted multiple extensions. Today, a copyright lasts up to 95 years, a policy of little benefit to long-dead artists, but a godsend to publishing companies.

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But as the Internet blossomed, so did a “free culture” movement dedicated to the digital publication of as much information as the law allows, and then some. Peters introduces us to remarkable characters like Michael Hart, father of Project Gutenberg, who spent 40 years transcribing tens of thousands of books for public use, and Carl Malamud, who forced the US Securities and Exchange Commission to provide free access to millions of corporate documents.

Swartz revered Malamud, but didn’t share the older man’s self-discipline. In 2008, after Malamud urged his supporters to legally download federal court records for republication, Swartz wrote a program that scooped them up by the millions and crashed the government computer system. He came close to doing time for that one, but failed to learn his lesson.

So in 2011, Swartz illegally tapped the MIT campus network to gain access to JSTOR, a vast online archive of scholarly research papers. Again, his massive downloads practically melted the JSTOR network. And this time, he paid a price — arrest, arraignment, and a terrifying encounter with federal prosecutors determined to make an example of him. JSTOR was willing to forgive and forget, but not the feds. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz insisted on jail time.

I can’t fault Peters’s sympathy for Swartz, and I share his opinion that the prosecutorial sledgehammer fell much too hard. But Peters seems a little too inclined to play the populist, sneering at the pro-copyright arguments of publishers. Yes, our current intellectual property statutes are absurdly restrictive. But apart from strong protections, how would artists and writers hope to make a decent living?

The conundrum continues, with activists on both sides engaged in constant efforts to redraw the boundaries. Peters’s new book is an excellent survey of the battlefield, and a sobering memorial to its most tragic victim.

THE IDEALIST: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet

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By Justin Peters. Scribner, 337 pp., $28

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com.