Aaron Swartz Versus the Bankers

(Illustration: DonkeyHotey)

New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while under federal investigation for bulk downloading academic articles, leaves little to disagree with. But it missed a comparison that has troubled me: between Swartz and the bankers who tanked the world economy.

I have found myself unable to write about this topic until now. First, Swartz lived for many years in my apartment building in Cambridge, Mass., and many residents remember him as quiet and kind. Second, I share his belief in the free flow of information. Using the NonCommercial ShareAlike license from Creative Commons, MIT Press published and freely licensed my Street-Fighting Mathematics“One of the early architects” of Creative Commons was Aaron Swartz.

Swartz tried to free knowledge and expand the public domain. In contrast, the bankers took from the public domain.

Not one banker has gone to jail, except Bernie Madoff — whose crime, as Matt Taibbi points out, was defrauding the wealthy. Bankers, even with a demonstrated record of laundering billions in drug money, are too big to jail. In contrast, Swartz was threatened with a long federal prison sentence.

Swartz was an enemy of rent-seeking. The bankers are its epitome.

Whereas the bankers are drawing ever bigger bonuses, Swartz’s case ended in his suicide.

As a final contrast, Swartz failed in his last project: the academic knowledge, much of it paid for with public funds, still sits behind toll booths. (As a previous New Yorker article pointed out, he probably should have worked with specialist hackers, instead of trusting his own skills, diverse as they were.) The bankers, on the other hand, succeeded.

Barraged by propaganda about intellectual “property,” from Disney and friends seeking to lock knowledge behind government-enforced toll booths, we have fallen far from our free-thinking colonial forebears and Thomas Jefferson‘s famous 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz. Your light still shines.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Alan T says:

    Thank you, Sanjoy. Here is more on Aaron.

    Jacob Lyles, http://jacobexmachina.blogspot.com/2013/01/aaron-swartz-freedom-fighters-death.html: “Aaron’s [alleged] crime is theft in precisely the same way that a member of the underground railroad was an accomplice in theft.”

    Larry Lessig, http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully

    Cory Doctorow, http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html

    Public interest attorney osewalrus, http://osewalrus.livejournal.com/1079370.html

    As you know, Aaron was a genius as well as an idealist. He co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification at the age of 14. I benefit from his work every day.

    In view of the fact that the original intent of U.S. copyright law was “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” it can be argued that bulk downloading of academic articles (which Aaron may or may not have done) and making them available to the public for free (which Aaron did not do, but may or may not have intended) promotes the progress of science better than locking up academic articles behind a paywall. No, I don’t hate copyright laws. I think that in this particular case, our copyright laws do not well serve their original purpose.

    Aaron’s work to make our scientific heritage available to the public is being carried on by diverse groups, including Demand Progress (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demand_Progress), which he founded; The Archive Team, which has released The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator Tool (http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/01/aaron-swartz-article-liberator-tool-released-by-archive-team.php?ref=fpnewsfeed); Creative Commons, (http://www.creativecommons.org/), whose licenses Aaron helped design; and public interest law firm Public Knowledge (http://www.publicknowledge.org/about).

    Aaron, sleep softly. You live in mankind.

    “They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
    A hundred white eagles have risen the sons of your sons,
    The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
    The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.”

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2
    • Mike B says:

      Aaron’s act of self sacrifice was probably one of the most effective actions he could take to help promote his vision. Instead of bemoaning this as some sort of tragedy I see this as a brilliant move based on the cards he was dealt. Aaron stuck it to the man in a way that might actually prompt real change.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5
  2. Mike B says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 15
    • Pseudonym says:

      I suspect that people like Swartz are dicks for the same reason why independent-minded politicians (I’m thinking of Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul and Jesse Ventura in particular) are a little bit crazy: perfectly-adjusted people tend to try to reform the system from the inside (and sometimes get swallowed up by it). You have to be a little bit crazy, or a little bit of an arsehole, to go outside the system.

      I’m not sure how you’d go about gathering evidence for this, though.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  3. bob says:

    So freakonomics.com is allowing preaching on its blog now?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 26 Thumb down 22
    • Jason says:

      Blogs are supposed to include opinion. This opinion is relevant to the topic of behavioral economics. Why shouldn’t Sanjoy post it?

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5
      • Grant says:

        What he posted wasn’t an informed opinion and is full of misinformation. There are lots of places on the internet for dogma–where you can go to hear things that confirm your social or political philosophy without regard to facts. Economics is a science…a search for truth, which is conspicuously absent here. That’s where Sanjoy went wrong. He posted mindless social/political rhetoric on a blog intended for economic thought.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 8
      • Oliver H says:

        Funny. I have to question whether you actually understand what a science is. “Truth” is a big word, and if you understood science, you wouldn’t use it as liberally. As such, I’d suggest you refrain from accusing others of “mindless social/political rhetoric”. As it stands, economics has a tough time convincing natural scientists and humanities researchers that it is indeed a science and not a mass effort to cherrypick the data to justify dogmatics as it stands. It doesn’t need people such as you claiming that it can do what no science claims to be able to do. As such, it’s ironic that you state there are lots of places on the internet for dogma.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  4. Bill Ogorodny says:

    Thank you so much for bringing up this topic. It is an outrage why none of these white collar criminals ended up in jail.
    There are two justice systems in my opinion. One for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of us

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 9
  5. Mike says:

    There are actually quite a few bankers in jail. The Rolling Stone article is over 2 years old and the Department of Justice has put away a number of people since then.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2
  6. Grant says:

    Not a very impressive or economically thought-out article. To refer to the many different people and institutions who contributed to the financial crisis as if they were all “bankers” conspiring in a smoky room and all got off scott free sounds more like a hick du ring the great depression who can’t figure out who is to blame for losing the farm than an economist who understands the events of the financial crisis. Madoff wasn’t a banker and his actions were not very similar to those of bankers. The crisis was not a conspiracy and didn’t particularly enrich bankers and wasn’t particularly the result of any illegal actions.

    I get it that you think Aaron Swartz was a good guy and empathize with him, but the comparison/contrast with the financial crisis is anything but apt.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 9
  7. Scott W says:

    There are so many important aspects of Arron Swartz’s life and prosecution that all attention to it is welcome. While this compare/contrast to banker prosecutions is a bit of a muddled overreach, I hope we keep talking about Aaron, his point of view and how we feel about the influence of power and money in our justice system..

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. James says:

    Suppose we turn this around. Take someone who believes that money ought to be free, and tries to free it by hacking ATM machines: is that person in any sense a hero?

    On the other hand, what exactly is wrong about laundering drug money? It’s the profit from a business, in which willing* buyers purchase products from willing sellers – a free market per Adam Smith – but the sellers are prevented from enjoying their profits by restrictive government. Why aren’t the bankers who help “free” those profits also heros?

    *However stupid I may think them for wanting that product. But then, I have similar feelings about the majority of products advertised on TV.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 8
    • Pseudonym says:

      There is a crucial difference between money and information. If I get money from you (legally or otherwise), you no longer have that money. If I get information from you, you still have that information. You have lost precisely nothing.

      That’s why copyright infringement, trademark infringement and patent infringement are not legally the same thing as “theft”. There is only one kind of “intellectual property” which can reasonably be thought of as “theft”, and that’s trade secret theft. In that case, you have lost something: you’ve lost the secret.

      Let’s take the example that you write a book, and I copy it without permission. This is copyright infringement. It is not “theft” or “stealing” of “IP”, because there is no “property” of which you have been deprived.

      I haven’t stolen anything from you or anyone else; you still have your copies, and everyone else has theirs. I haven’t even stolen a “right”; you still have the right to copy it, exploit it commercially, publicly perform it and so on, and moreover these are all rights you would still have even if there were no such thing as copyright.

      Copyright is not a piece of property you posess which I can deprive you of. It is a restriction imposed on me (and everyone else) which I can break.

      And it’s not an absolute restriction, either. I’m allowed to copy parts of the book, or even the whole book, under certain circumstances, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.

      In a deep sense, “intellectual property” doesn’t exist. What we customarily call “intellectual property” is not a thing, not “property”, and arguably an unhelpful and confusing term which causes more problems than it solves.

      But I digress. In the case of Aaron Swartz, even that wasn’t the issue. We’re talking about material which is free to redistribute, but happens to be behind a paywall. It was the act of circumventing the paywall which was the problem, not the redistribution of material that you can legally redistribute.

      Thumb up 7 Thumb down 7
      • James says:

        This is wrong. If I write a book and you copy it instead of buying it, you are depriving me of the potential income from that sale, thus depriving yourself (and all my other millions of readers) of the opportunity of reading my vastly entertaining & enlightening future works, which I won’t be writing because I now have to work a dull & boring day job to make a living.

        As for the paywall issue, I’ve found that paywalled research papers (in the sciences, anyway) can almost always be found, unpaywalled, on the authors’ or research lab’ web sites. (Though I do wish Google had an option to filter out paywall hits and other useless results.) So what exactly was the point supposed to be?

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
      • Pseudonym says:

        That’s a common mistake. If I copy your book, I have not taken away from you the right to sell it. You haven’t made a sale to me, but if I’m the kind of person who would copy it instead of buying it, I probably wouldn’t have paid for it anyway. There is no “potential income” that you have lost, any more than if I’d borrowed the book from a library.

        On the other hand, if the reason why I wouldn’t have bought it is because I’m a poor undergraduate student, what you may have gained is a fan who will pay money for your books in the future once I have the money to do so. That’s certainly happened to me with books I’ve borrowed from libraries; when I finally got money to spend, authors that I’d discovered for free all of a sudden started getting some of my hard-earned.

        As for the paywall issue, many authors are not legally permitted to post papers on their web sites. Moreover, any author who lived long enough ago probably doesn’t have a web site, but their research may still be worth reading.

        If you’re lucky to be at a university, chances are your library’s subscription can get you electronic copies of whatever you want. If you’re not, you’re out of luck.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5
      • James says:

        You may not have taken away my right to sell my book, but when everyone copies things as a matter of course, what chance do I have of selling it?

        I know the argument you’re trying to make, but as far as I can see, it’s best described as wishful thinking.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
      • Oliver H says:

        James, you are trying to shirk the duties of someone wanting to sell a product. It is YOUR job to convince people that your product is worth spending money for. When everyone copies things “as a matter of course”, it’s because YOU have failed to convince people you are providing something valuable.

        As such, it is YOUR argument that’s wishful thinking. You hope that the fact that you offer something for sales is enough to make money with it. It isn’t, and it never was. And it is highly presumptuous to assume you should have more rights to people’s money than those offering other types of products.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
      • James says:

        No again, on purely practical grounds. Under such a regime, making any creative work available requires that the creator be adept at both creating something of value, and at selling that work. It seems obvious that if I have to spend significant time producing & marketing my latest work of genius, that’s time that I can’t spend creating my next work. Beyond that, I would argue that creation and selling are entirely different skill sets, even to a considerable extent orthogonal – that is, the aptitudes that allow a person to be good at one are likely to make him poor at the other. Indeed, even under past market rules, it’s not hard to think of works of genius that were slow to take off because of inadequate sales, and an overwheming amount of pure crap foisted on the public by adept salesmanship.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
      • Oliver H says:

        James, you are absolutely right that creation and selling are two different skill sets. That’s why there are publishers which, instead of bitching and moaning about piracy, should see for it that THEY sell the stuff you created.

        You don’t have to have sales skills to make a creative work. But you HAVE to either have sales skills or hire someone who does if you want to make money with it.

        Believing you should have a right to people’s money simply because you produced something great is, sorry, simply delusional. That’s not how the market works.

        You are free to produce whatever you want. But if you want to get money for it, you better either convince people yourself that your product is worth the money or hire someone (and consequentially pay them, reducing your margin) to do so.

        It is ironic that you compared copying to hacking an ATM. What you want to do is hacking people’s wallet: You want to help yourself to its contents regardless whether they deem you deserve to get their cash or not.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
      • Pseudonym says:

        Just to be clear, my underlying position in all of this is that the intended purpose of copyright is, in the words of the US constitution, “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”. Today, that is at best a side-effect of the current copyright system.

        In true Freakonomics style, I think we need to rethink copyright. As it happens, I actually agree with the James is trying to make, namely, that we need a mechanism which incentivises the creation of artistic works. However, that is all it should do. People respond to incentives, and today, the incentive is there for corporations to engage in censorship and rent-seeking, because current copyright law lets them get away with it.

        Aaron Swartz was not trying to copy a book you wrote. He was trying to give you (assuming “you” are not employed at a university which already does this) access to the results of research which is legal for you to have, and most of which you already paid for with your taxes.

        That’s precisely the sort of thing which copyright should not prevent someone from doing. Academics do not write papers because they get a cut every time a someone reads the paper. The incentive for producing that work is not in any way tied to the money that it costs to obtain or use a copy of the paper.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
      • James says:

        “Believing you should have a right to people’s money simply because you produced something great is, sorry, simply delusional.”

        I can’t see that it’s any more delusional than you believing that you should have a right to free and unlimited access to the products of my creative genius – or my insipid mediocrity, for that matter – simply because it’s easy for you to take it.

        “…the incentive is there for corporations to engage in censorship and rent-seeking, because current copyright law lets them get away with it.”

        Aha! And there we have it, it’s all a plot by the evil corporations :-)

        I wish you would demonstrate verified instances of corporations engaging in censorship – and I don’t mean attempting to keep their trade secrets secret – or how they could realistically expect to profit by it if they did. As for rent-seeking, whatever is wrong with that?

        When we come to the issue of research papers, there are certainly places to publish that are open access, if researchers wish to do that (and many do), or if it’s a condition of research grants &c. But it is, and should be, THEIR choice, not something imposed on them by some ideologically-driven third party.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
      • Oliver H says:

        “I can’t see that it’s any more delusional than you believing that you should have a right to free and unlimited access to the products of my creative genius – or my insipid mediocrity, for that matter – simply because it’s easy for you to take it.”

        I didn’t postulate any such right – so you continue arguing based on pure fiction.

        “When we come to the issue of research papers, there are certainly places to publish that are open access, if researchers wish to do that (and many do), or if it’s a condition of research grants &c. But it is, and should be, THEIR choice, not something imposed on them by some ideologically-driven third party.”

        As if you weren’t ideology driven, and as if they had a choice now. In fact, they are being stripped of the rights to their publications by the big publishers and have to sign over any choice to the publisher. Otherwise, that prestigious journal will not accept their study, thereby greatly decreasing the effect to their reputation.

        What you say is nothing less than extortion and blackmail are perfectly ok if they have no other purpose than to enrich a publisher.

        Researchers do research, and research profits from dissemination. If I know several other people already did an experiment before me, then I can reasonably rely on it working and can skip to the interesting part. Likewise, if I knew something did not work, I can spare myself from trying and failing ten times. But then, negative results are too “un-sexy” for the larger publishers.

        Not the least, grant requirements or no, you miss that the only reason those grant requirements came about were that the tax payer was expected to pay twice for a study: Once for doing it, and once for reading what the result was. If you had your car tested for safety, and the garage would tell you they sent their results to a publisher and you’d have to pay the same sum all over again to the publisher to actually read what the mechanic found out, what would you say?

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
      • Pseudonym says:


        “I wish you would demonstrate verified instances of corporations engaging in censorship – and I don’t mean attempting to keep their trade secrets secret – or how they could realistically expect to profit by it if they did.”

        Sure. Let me give you a recent example. I don’t think you can give links here, but Google can provide what you need. I’m going to over-use names of people, blogs and books to improve the search results.

        Amid Amidi has written several award-winning books about the history and art of animated film. His books include “Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation” and “The Art of Pixar: The Complete Color Scripts and Select Art from 25 Years of Animation”. He is also the editor-in-chief of industry blog Cartoon Brew.

        His most recent book, “Full Steam Ahead”, is a biography of Disney animator Ward Kimball. It has received advanced praise from a number of prominent animators, including Henry Selick and Brad Bird.

        Any biography of a Disney animator must contain some of his artwork, because that is the precise reason why he’s an interesting figure. Disney asked for approval on the book before they would release artwork to be included. It was submitted to them in January 2012, over a year ago. They have not yet approved it. In February, after over a year of waiting, Amidi’s published dropped the project, even though it was basically finished.

        So what was the problem? According to Amidi, the problem is that Ward Kimball’s actual life didn’t fit their corporate image.

        Begin quote:

        I paid a heavy price for writing a book about Ward Kimball, the human being. It didn’t please the Disney Company, who has created their own version of Ward Kimball, a character straight out of Fantasyland which the company unloads onto unsuspecting Disney fans at events like D23. In the words of Michael Barrier, doyen of American animation critics, the Disney company has an “approved narrative”. My book simply isn’t a part of the history they’ve concocted.

        In the name of protecting their brand’s integrity, the Disney company has also tried to claim ownership over Ward’s personal life. They have gone so far as to insist that I eliminate stories from Ward’s childhood because his experiences as an eleven-year-old weren’t “Disney” enough. Such attempts to edit the private and personal lives of their former employees are absurd and disturbing, to say the least.

        There are people on my side, most notably the Kimball children themselves. They have not taken the Disney company’s disrespectful treatment of their father sitting down. They recently filed a complaint with Margaret Adamic, a contracts adminstrator at Disney Publishing whose department is responsible for granting permissions to use Disney artwork. The Kimballs expressed their dissatisfaction with the company’s “incomprehensibly slow process of Disney employees going through it word by word and image by image to cleanse the book of anything that might raise an eyebrow by any Disney representative.” They also wrote about how they were “disheartened by the treatment afforded Amid in this approval process.”

        End quote.

        (Michael Barrier, by the way, is a noted animation historian who has also had similar run-ins with Disney.)

        Now I want to be clear about a few things here. Yes, Disney owns much of the artwork, and hence they have certain legal rights to it.

        This book does not compete with Disney in any way at all. The market for their movies for which Kimball was a key artist, and merchandise based on it, will not be affected in any way whatsoever by the publication of Kimball’s biography.

        Moreover, if the book was not commercial, it would be a clear case of “fair use”, given that it is clearly a work of research, commentary and/or criticism. Amidi has been publishing the material he wants to use on a web site for almost a year.

        This isn’t actually about the artwork. This is about is that Disney is trying to use its copyright to literally rewrite history.

        Is that a clear enough case of “censorship” for you?

        As for rent-seeking, I think it’s pretty clear why it’s bad in the context of what I was saying. The current copyright system provides economic rent from artificial legal monopolies. In an allegedly free market system, you should require a very high burden of proof to justify why the government should give you an artificial legal monopoly.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
    • Oliver H says:

      You might want to think about why copyright infringement is a distinct legal entity from theft. If what you did was indeed “turning it around”, there would be no necessity for it.

      Oh, and hint: It’s not simply due to historical reasons, and neither due to complete arbitrariness. There are specific concerns behind it.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1