Science, Tech & Environment

Death of internet activist and innovator creates call for updated copyright law


Aaron Swartz speaks at a rally protesting against the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012. (Photo by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons.)

The tech community and others are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment.

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Swartz, 26, invented the RSS feed protocol when he was just 14 and went on to help in the creation of the popular social networking site, Reddit

But last year, Swartz was accused of illegally downloading research documents from the academic service JSTOR, using networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If he had been convicted, he could have faced up to 35 years in prison.

Now, a petition has been signed by more than 28,000 people on the White House's We The People site. It asks for the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for what they call an overreach in Swartz’s case.

Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, says characterizing Swartz's death as part of the ongoing battle for mental health services isn’t a fair characterization.

“I think Aaron was rationally depressed, he was depressed because he recognized that the government was going to pursue this vindictive, completely over-reaching prosecution to the bitter end,” he said.

For 18 months, Swartz and his lawyers tried to settle the case outside of court, and originally JSTOR wasn’t interested in pressing charges, Lessig said. But prosecutors wanted to make an example of Swartz, and saw parallels between his case and those of people who leaked information to Wikileaks.

“The reality is, every single one of us could be prosecuted by the federal government for something,” Lessig said. “What we rely on is good judgment, decency, integrity, balance, proportionality. Those are the principles that a prosecutor has got to hold right in the center of their attention.”

Lessig says he know many prosecutors, and many, he says, are the most decent human beings who do what they believe is right.

“But the problem is, when a prosecutor steps out of that legitimate, decent role, we have nothing in our legal system to reign them back,” he said. 

Whether Swartz’s downloads was an act of liberation, or one of theft, Lessig says it depends. This, however, wasn't the first time Swartz got in hot water for making public documents that were access-protected.

Swartz previously made public documents from the PACER federal court document database, Lessig said. Originally he was supposed to be prosecuted for this, but the court overseeing the case determined what he had done was legitimate, not illegal.

Though Lessig doesn’t believe copyrighted material should be taken and spread in violation of copyright law, he agrees with Swartz that copyright law needs to be updated and brought into the 21st century. 

"I’m not somebody who believes that anybody is entitled to break into a database and take material that is protected by the law, the law, properly conceived, should be enforced,” he said.

As for the free culture movement Swartz was part of, it's based on the idea that people should have the ability to build upon and share their culture.

"It doesn't believe copyright should be eliminated, it believes copyright needs to be balanced and updated and he was one of the most important advocates of that movement,” Lessig said.