All Rights Reserved

Decision to grant a publisher the right to print the writings of Aaron Swartz -- viewed by some as a martyr of the open-access movement -- sets off a debate about copyright.

April 25, 2016
Fred Benenson
Aaron Swartz

A group of editors and academics are criticizing how the rights to Aaron Swartz’s writings are being handled, saying it violates the activist and programmer’s open-access legacy.

Swartz, whose abbreviated résumé included work on projects that supported the free flow of information, took his own life in 2013. Swartz was in 2011 discovered connecting to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network to download millions of scholarly articles from the database JSTOR. After being indicted on felony fraud charges carrying a prison sentence of up to 35 years, Swartz hanged himself.

Since his death, Swartz has become something of a martyr for the open-access movement. His life became the focus of The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, a documentary, and his writings -- particularly his 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” -- have fueled opponents of copyright restrictions.

The editors of the open-access publisher punctum books (the press does not use uppercase letters in its name) therefore say it is “in horribly bad taste” that Verso Books and the New Press, two other publishers, are making it difficult to download and share a curated collection of Swartz’s writings. The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz is not licensed under a Creative Commons license, and while Verso Books' ebooks can be read on any device, they come with watermarks that show the name and email of the person who downloaded them. (Verso Books distributes the book in some regions.)

Swartz helped create Creative Commons, as well as the web feed format RSS, the social site Reddit and the anonymous information sharing service SecureDrop.

In an open letter, the editors and dozens of other signatories say the restrictions represent a “disconnect” between Swartz’s activism and the publishers’ own rights. “And while you may have labored with all good intentions to ‘compile’ his work in elegant and mobile form, you have done so in a way that nevertheless asserts certain ‘rights’ over that work as well as over its presentation and dissemination in these particular editions in a way that, if perfectly ‘legal,’ is also intellectually and morally dishonest,” the letter reads.

The book includes a selection of Swartz’s writings on topics such as computers, politics and media, and opens with an original introduction by Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School. Swartz’s blog posts are available for free online.

Eileen A. Joy, the founding director of punctum books who wrote the open letter, said in an interview that she was loath to criticize the two publishers, but that their actions -- while perfectly legal -- are “morally and ethically and ironically out of whack with [Swartz’s] own wishes and what he stood for, which was full open access for all knowledge.”

In addition to the watermarking, Joy criticized the publishers for the boilerplate language they used in the book’s colophon claiming rights under copyright law and for a one-day campaign during which Verso Books made the ebook available to download for free. The publisher titled the blog post announcing the campaign “Psst! Downloading Isn't Stealing [for today],” a play on a Swartz blog post by more or less the same name.

The publishers did not respond to requests for comment.

Swartz’s website included instructions about what to do with his work in case he could not longer keep his web services running. For one of his requests, he asked “that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available” on his website.

“We live in a democracy,” Swartz wrote in that post. “If the people want to share files then the law should be changed to let them.”

The site has been updated after his death by programmer Sean B. Palmer, whom Swartz in 2003 designated as the executor of his work, and now includes the language, “Be aware, however, that the wishes that Aaron had in 2003 do not necessarily correspond with those that he had in 2013.”

Palmer also did not respond to a request for comment. He reportedly does not speak to the media. Joy posted an email exchange between her and Palmer in the comment section of the open letter, in which he said he would contact the publishers about the colophon, the language used in the ebook giveaway and the watermarking.

Some critics have recently started questioning Palmer’s stewardship, however. The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz, which was published in late 2015, is not the first collection of Swartz’s writings. In October 2014, Discovery Publisher released Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz, a collection of 300 of Swartz’s posts. The publisher never claimed exclusive copyright.

“We explicitly wrote in the book, as part of the introduction, that the unedited version of the material was available on Aaron’s website (along with web link),” Adriano Lucchese, editor in chief of Discovery Publisher, said in an email. “We also said that, as Aaron would have wanted it, the book would be released free of charge after a year. We priced it with just enough margin to cover our cost.”

In August 2015, Discovery Publisher received a takedown notice from Jed Bickman, associate editor of the New Press, invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. In an email to Lucchese, he wrote that Palmer "has signed an agreement with us that gives us the exclusive right to reprint [Swartz's writings] in book form."

However, in a comment on the open letter posted on Sunday, Palmer denied that he gave the New Press exclusive publication rights, saying the publisher owns the rights "only to their own derivative elements such as their editorial contributions."

As part of the agreement, the New Press agreed to donate royalties to the charity evaluator GiveWell, as per Swartz’s wishes. The publisher challenged Discovery Publisher to do the same. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz is no longer available for sale, but it can be downloaded from the publisher’s website.

Palmer said in the comment that the New Press only contacted Discovery Publisher because it was selling the book. "Then you put your book online, which was a good outcome," he wrote.

Swartz himself was outspoken on the DMCA. In a 2009 blog post, he wrote, “This isn’t just a law itching for abuse; it’s a law being abused.”

The takedown last year spawned a petition protesting Palmer’s decision to grant the New Press publication rights. Palmer responded to the petition, calling the legal action “heavy-handed” but defending his own actions. Swartz’s original instructions for what to do with his work should he no longer be able to manage it “were things that Aaron said in early 2003, when he was 16,” he wrote. “He lived another decade, and changed his mind a lot in that decade. He forgot to update that page. I have now updated it for him.”

Palmer added, “Aaron did an enormous amount of good, and I have many responsibilities relative to that.”


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