On the Utter Senselessness of Aaron Swartz’s Death

In a recent column (“Aaaron Swartz and Intellectual Property’s Bitter Enders“), C4SS Media Director Thomas Knapp recalls John Kerry’s question about the Vietnam War: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Like America’s war to prop up the regime of Japanese collaborationist generals and Mekong delta landlords in Saigon, the war for artificial scarcity in ideas was doomed from the beginning. A war to stop an entire population from doing what it’s dead set on doing is doomed to fail — even when you refer to the “strategic hamlets” as “paywalls” or “walled gardens.”

As Tom writes, the “Intellectual Property War” is

“a 300-year war that, for 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.”

That’s exactly right. The war is already over. As Tom argues elsewhere, the proprietary content industries and their lobbyists are like Japanese soldiers entrenched in the jungles of Indonesia twenty years after Hiroshima, still waiting for reinforcements. The Leviathan of artificial scarcity, the monstrous system of economic exploitation based on extracting rents from the use of information, is already dead. Michael Eisner, Bill Gates, Bono, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, the RIAA and MPAA, are just maggots squirming in the rotting carcass.

NYU’s Danah Boyd (“Processing the loss of Aaron Swartz,” January 13) argues that the Justice Department and MIT persecution of Aaron Swartz was driven entirely by the desire to make an example of him: “the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were pwned.”

But this was utterly futile. It’s the academic paywall model itself that is p0wned. The “lesson” of the Maginot Line was simply: “Don’t attack billions of tons of steel-reinforced concrete, machine guns and heavy howitzers head-on.” And General von Manstein learned that lesson quite effectively, routing around the whole mess in the Ardennes offensive of 1940.

The “lesson” of the Swartz prosecution, likewise, is “don’t download four million files from JSTOR in order to make a big statement.” But in the meantime, I imagine grad students with JSTOR memberships quietly download more PDFs than that for friends every single year.

I’m a good example of this. As an independent scholar, I’m not going to pay for a JSTOR membership. And I’m sure not going to buy articles behind a paywall for $20 or more a shot. Prohibitions on downloading and copying academic articles are no different in kind from feudal rules against owning a private hand mill in order to avoid the lord’s fee for milling one’s corn. I’ve got plenty of friends in academia with JSTOR privileges who are willing to do me a favor, especially if I chip in a couple of bucks for their time and trouble.

As Cory Doctorow once wrote, the computer is a machine for copying bits at zero marginal cost, and a business model that depends on stopping people from copying bits is doomed to failure. So the people who hounded Aaron Swartz to his death did so, not even in the realistic hope of victory, but out of the same vindictive impulse that drives a defeated invader to inflict one more indignity on the violated country on its way out. Aaron Swartz was not the last man to die for a “mistake,” but — let us hope — the last atrocity inflicted by a criminal aggressor.

Translations for this article:

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