Aaron Swartz's Tragic Battle with Copyright

The Reddit co-founder and tech renegade committed suicide on Friday.

Aaron H. Swartz, one of America's most vigorous champions of open access and copyright reform, committed suicide in New York City on Friday at the age of 26. 

He was a pioneer and a renegade, part of the team that built Reddit as well as the widely-used RSS protocol. But he first began making headlines for a coding exploit that he undertook in September of 2010, when he used MIT's servers to scrape and download a large portion of the academic articles stored by the online catalog JSTOR using a program named keepgrabbing.py. Per copyright law, it was illegal, but MIT didn't press charges and neither did JSTOR. The government, however, decided to throw the book at Swartz, eventually hitting him with 13 separate charges and threatening to send him to prison for decades. According to his mother, Swartz was depressed about the court case and possibility of years in prison. He'd contemplated suicide in the past and, for unknown reasons, followed through this time.

In July of 2011, Swartz was arrested and indicted for that exploit. In September, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts piled on additional felony counts, increasing the number of charges from four to 13. They included everything from wire fraud, computer fraud, and reckless damaging JSTOR – the latter justified by the prosecution due to the down time to the database during Swartz’s mass scraping – and the prosecution said that Swartz had "stolen … millions of dollars" worth of "property". The pending charges carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. At the time, he declined Motherboard's request for an interview. "Afraid I can't comment on much" he wrote.

But ITHAKA, the nonprofit organisation responsible for JSTOR, reiterated to Motherboard in September that it had settled its civil claims with Swartz and considered the matter “concluded”. One might well wonder why criminal prosecutors were so fervent in their case against Swartz considering ITHAKA’s opting not to pursue the case any further. Many considered Swartz the victim of example-making by the FBI.

There's a good chance that Swartz affected how you use the Internet, and how you will use it. Prior to that high profile incident (and another mass download), Swartz had already proven himself as a distinguished technologist and intellectual, having been co-author of the first RSS specification – which may well have brought you to this article – when he was just 14-years old. He went on to attend Stanford but left after a year, saying that he "didn't find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies".

Read the rest over at MOTHERBOARD

Image via Flickr