The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Unholy Sanctity of Copyright

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Copy this content and we’ll hunt you down and send you to the Gulag

We all love a good wrong-man story, and I mean the story of an innocent man accused of a serious crime, and hunted by the authorities while he desperately tries to prove his innocence.

This plot has a good pedigree in popular culture, as it intrigued Alfred Hitchcock, and other great, and many lesser movie makers. We have all kinds of action heroes, accused of a terrible crime, more often than not framed as part of a cover up, or an even more heinous crime, like the Bourne movies, or the Fugitive, or a bunch of things Denzel Washington has been in.

The wrongly accused theme is a staple of soap operas. It’s a big part of the megahit Downton Abbey, whose valet was convicted of a murder we’re sure he didn’t commit, and sent to prison where inmates are trying to set him up.

Aaron Swartz speaking against antipiracy legislation

Aaron Swartz speaking against antipiracy legislation

But the highest order of wrong-man stories is the kind where the man is on a moral mission willing to bend the rules or even break the law for the greater good.

In the real world, we now have a wrong-man story that had a very sad ending. I’m talking about the criminal prosecution and suicide of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, who stole four million academic articles from JSTOR, which stands for journal storage and is a library database of scholarly material. Swartz intended to make them available universally without charge.

Swartz was an internet wunderkind who had a hand in building the website Reddit, an early version of the wildly popular news aggregators and commenting site — like the Huffington Post. Readers of Reddit post links to other web pages, articles, and media, and hope to provoke debate. I don’t know if the web cacophony created by Reddit and all its successors will prove to be a good thing or a bad thing, but this young man was trying to make what he considered important resources available to everyone.

For its part, JSTOR was trying to protect its turf as a clearing house for documents to scholars. It’s a quaint notion now that public institutions like libraries, museums, and universities themselves are as free and open as possible to the public for the general good. But it’s the overwhelming spirit of our time that profit is the prime mover. Everything is big business.

The universities, no longer ivory towers above the fray, are cauldrons of entrepreneurial spirit. I saw it myself, not as an impressionable kid, but as a grown-up who went to graduate school in the sciences. I understood that most people seek education in order to be capable of getting jobs, but I had no idea that I would find the term start-up on the lips of every professor and researcher around.

The scholarly institutions themselves look a lot like businesses. It’s not surprising since a university bureaucracy is a bureaucracy first and a school second — just like the banks too big to fail are bureaucracies with politics and turf wars, or the government bureaucracies that are routinely vilified.

Back to Swartz’s story. JSTOR’s attitude is pretty clear to me in its July 19, 2011, press release on the case when Swartz was initially charged by federal prosecutors. JSTOR, which went to the feds in the first place, then stepped back and said it’s no longer JSTOR’s problem, since the documents were all returned.

It’s puzzling why the feds continued to vigorously pursue Swartz, who was not exactly a master criminal. The surveillance pictures of him walking into a server room at MIT from where he downloaded the material are widely used in the news media. Yet, he was facing a 35-year prison term and a $1 million fine, and throughout the plea bargaining it was MIT that was insisting on jail time, according to the Boston Globe.

The key is in the JSTOR statement. It said, “a substantial portion of our publisher partners’ content was downloaded.” You see, Swartz was challenging the mighty publishing industry, and not only the obscure academic brands (imprints in the words of the trade) but by extension the whole ball of wax, memoirs by movie stars, self-help manuals, mysteries and many more. Beyond the printed word, the publishers are in league with the music and movie industries, which have co-opted the government and turned their content into a matter of national policy.

For this challenge to the owners of all types of content, the prosecutors leaned on him. It couldn’t be a pretty thing. We’ve all seen the witness interview rooms on television, and the intense bargaining for an admission of guilt.

People close to Swartz have told reporters that the pressure was too much for the kid. I don’t know if that’s true, but I sympathize. I can put myself in that predicament, maybe thanks to all the movies. Still, I have the strong feeling they put the heat on the wrong man, a grave injustice was done by the pursuit of Swartz.

Mark Zuckerberg in his even younger years

Mark Zuckerberg in his even younger years

Consider this:

In 2003, another nerdy young man stole some university property by hacking university computers, and putting private information on the web, open to all the world to see. The school was Harvard, and the wunderkind to be was, of course, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. He stole pictures of the residents of nine dormitories (houses in Harvard-lingo) and put them on the web in a callow beauty contest.

He was caught, and he shut down his site,, and apologized all over the place for his transgression. No harm was done. Harvard had a hearing, reported the Crimson school paper, and Zuckerberg was allowed to stay in school, where he soon redesigned his web site and refined his methods into what soon became Facebook Inc., which must have the largest collection of personal dossiers besides the NSA.

The cops were never called. No one was prosecuted, but, hey, no one’s copyright was involved. No private property was at risk. No profit would be lost.

And I have a hunch that prosecutors are quite happy about the huge store of personal information being collected by Facebook, by Google, and by all the other data collection businesses.


Written by theunbiasedeye

January 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm

One Response

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  1. I know the sentences being talked about were max sentences and he almost certainly wouldn’t have got them, but even still they seem extreme. The should be a way for the law to differentiate between a naive hacktivist and a series criminal. Especially as I think none of the academic institutions actually wanted him prosectued.


    February 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm

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