A Sacrifice on the Altar of Intellectual Property

Aaron Swartz died recently, by his own hand. He was 26, and facing up to thirty years in federal prison for downloading most of JSTOR. Prosecutors had offered him a plea-bargain involving confession to a felony and a year behind bars, but he’d turned it down.

I only met him once, a few weeks ago. He was on a project to figure out how a couple of hedge fund zillionaires could contribute to moving drug policy forward. Very sharp, very serious about getting it right, eager to learn, willing to change his mind, committed to a world-view he called “analytic altruism.”

And (it seemed) remarkably calm under the looming threat of prison.

Aaron Swartz’s crime was “stealing” what should have been free in the first place. Yes, someone has to pay for the process of academic publishing. But the right price for access to scientific knowledge is identically zero. JSTOR makes the world’s scientific knowledge available for free to those affiliated with JSTOR’s member universities. But in a sane world everyone would have that access, and the governments that spend money to fund research would spend a tiny bit more money to maintain a free research-access system.

Lawrence Lessig makes the argument that the prosecution was over-zealous. More generally, we need to stop acting as if information ought to be bought and sold under a set of legal conventions devised for rival-consumption goods. The Constitutional power to create “intellectual property” in the form of patents and copyrights comes with the clause that it is to be used “to promote science and the useful arts.” The current system impedes both. It’s not technically impossible to replace it. But the business of selling what ought to be free is a big business, and it will take big political muscle to push it aside.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.