Aaron Swartz and Intellectual Property’s Bitter-Enders

It’s never really possible to understand all of a person’s problems or how those problems might play into the decision to take his or her own life, but it’s a good bet that the 35-year prison sentence and $1 million fine hanging over Aaron Swartz’s head played a significant role in his choice.

“How,” John Kerry asked a committee of the US Senate (to which he himself would later be elected) in 1971, “do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

That question was among the first that came to mind last week when I heard that Swartz had hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

Swartz was 26 and had already lived a life packed with accomplishments, from co-authoring the RSS standard (the primary tool for syndicating web content) at 14 to founding Infogami, which later merged into the popular Reddit social site, to co-founding the Internet freedom organization Demand Progress.

The threatened prison sentence and fine emanated from his attempt to fulfill a non-profit organization’s own stated mission of “helping the academic community take full advantage of rapidly advancing information and networking technologies”: He downloaded four million scholarly articles from JSTOR via an MIT account with the intention of making them universally available via P2P technology.

For this, he was hounded to his death by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant US Attorneys Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland, even though JSTOR itself declined to pursue civil litigation and has subsequently made millions of those articles publicly available.

I sincerely hope that Swartz will go down in history as the last casualty of the war over “intellectual property” — a 300-year war that, or all practical purposes, ended years ago in triumph for the forces of freedom and a total rout of those who rely, for their fortunes, on the power of the state to extract rent on people’s use of their own minds and bodies.

Since England’s “Statute of Anne” in 1710, the rentiers have been fighting increasingly dubious battles to maintain and profit from the fiction of “intellectual property.” Even at a time when printing presses were rare and electronic media non-existent, enforcement was impossible. The best they could hope for was to discourage copying by “making an example” of a few of the most prominent scofflaws.

The dawn of the Internet Age was the Appomattox of the “intellectual property” wars. The equipment for copying data and channels for distribution of that data are now cheaply and globally available. They represent a nearly trivial investment in “advanced” nations, and a doable investment even in the “Third World.”

The persecutions and prosecutions of “intellectual property” scofflaws like Jammie Thomas and distribution innovators like Aaron Swartz don’t even rise to the level of rearguard actions or last-ditch measures in this war. They’re more along the lines of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln after Lee’s surrender, or the threatened “werewolf” attacks in occupied Germany at the end of World War II. They will not and cannot affect the outcome. They’re just murderous tantrums in lieu of facing reality.

Copyright. Is. Over. And patent is on its last legs. The old media companies’ only chance of survival is to give up their failed state-created monopolies and protection rackets, and figure out how to generate profits through voluntary trade instead.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory