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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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More Thoughts on Aaron Swartz


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.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




4 Comments | Post Comment
AGAIN Froma, you MISS the point about the OVER REACH and equating this crime with a penalty five times rapists and murderers. The original plaintiff called it off years ago, the Gummermint and old MIT didn't.
Have a heart. This is a tragedy. You obviously never had smart spirited children who committed victimless crimes.
Ortiz has now made the name she wanted for herself in BLOOD, she will Never be Mass gov. And to whatever degree Holder, who had Ortiz under his wing, could have backed this off, he is bloody also and the Left DOES want his head now. Fast & Furious ;~)
Comment: #1
Posted by: Gerry Ahrens
Thu Jan 24, 2013 4:04 PM
Rightly or wrongly Aaron felt these academic archives were the collective wisdom of the people of the world and belonged to everyone, not just those universities able to pay the “owners,” JSTOR, a yearly fee for access. He asked why this information was not in the commons and available to every researcher and university in the world.
     Millions of people in Africa have died and are dying unnecessarily of AIDS because the World Health Organization - defending the property rights of the big pharmaceuticals -  is blocking the importation of cheap, lifesaving generic AIDS drugs.
    The development of most of these anti-retroviral cocktails were taxpayer funded.
     The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued patents on about 20 percent of human genes and DNA sequences found in nature, including inherited breast cancer genes brca 1 & 2. The holders of these patents are able to prevent anyone from studying, testing, or doing any research without paying them. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the patentability of genes in this session.
     Big Pharma are searching the world for herbal remedies and medicinal plants by seeking out indigenous tribes in the Amazon and elsewhere. They are granted property rights to "their finds". Would Ms. Harrop accuse them of piracy? 
     Agribusiness has descended on Mexico, the cradle of the world's corn cultivation with thousands of varieties, and are planting genetically modified seed corn. When the corn fields of local farmers are cross-pollinated, these biotech companies are able to sue farmers for patent infringement. 
     Property rights are creating a mono-culture in plant seeds with transnationals capturing the world's seed supply and threatening the health and safety of food world wide.
    Ms. Harrop cannot conceive of a world without intellectual property rights. Aaron Swartz could.
Comment: #2
Posted by: John St Lawrence
Fri Jan 25, 2013 12:36 PM
A young person is dead, driven to suicide by a threat of a long jail sentence made by an aggressive DA for a nonviolent crime. Have you no compassion for him or his parents? He may have been overly idealistic, but comments like "MIT isn't day care" and " the infantilizing culture of academia" are degrading to Aaron Swartz and ultimately cause a loss of respect for your columns. Are you overly sensitive that you might not be paid for your work if research articles can stimulate young academics freely?
Comment: #3
Posted by: Alan Weiss
Fri Jan 25, 2013 5:19 PM
While I agree in principle that one should not engage in civil disobedience if one is not prepared to spend some time in jail, I think you missed an important point in that Swartz was not charged with copyright infringement in any form. Instead, he was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, essentially for "unauthorized" use of the JSTOR database.

The relevant section of the CFAA criminalizes any use of a site contrary to its Terms of Service. This is the same law that makes it a felony, subject to a ten-year prison sentence, for anyone to have two Facebook accounts. This is the same law that made it a felony for a minor to go to and search for something, prior to March 2012 when google changed its Terms of Service. If someone is to be charged for doing something like what Swartz did, they should at least be charged under a law that makes some kind of sense.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Peter Dordal
Sun Feb 3, 2013 1:40 PM
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