On Aaron Swartz

by Krishna on January 20, 2013

Aaron Swartz’s sad death is one of the great losses to the tech community. The first time I heard about Aaron Swartz was when I was looking for an RSS feed to Paul Graham’s essays. Because he had a static site, he had pointed an RSS link to one on Swartz's site, which Swartz had created by scraping the content. Over time, I became more aware of his early contributions and Reddit career. I followed (and twice linked to) the writings on his blog, which covered a lot of ground, including brilliant movie reviews, such as this recent one of the sci-fi movie “Looper” and analysis of the Batman trilogy from a political perspective. He was also writing a thoughtful multi-part series called “Raw Nerve” about getting better at life.

Swartz’s main life work was in the area of intellectual property rights, mostly related to copyright. Interestingly, from what I have read, it seems that his main brushes with law enforcement related to simply making public documents publicly available. As in, information that is in the public domain, but protected by a gatekeeper who charges for the privilege, or restricts the volume of information that can be accessed. The problem, of course, is that when something similar is done by Google (like with Google Books) or other companies, they have deep pockets and an army of lawyers to fight their point of view out in court unlike an individual.

But the ideas that Swartz fought for were important. The increasing dominance of technology over every aspect of our life means that whoever controls the agenda on intellectual property will increasingly control the rewards and rents in tomorrow’s society. Copyright law, patent law, trademark law and laws against electronic reverse engineering will determine the rise and fall of monopolies, whether we have increasing or decreasing innovation, whether we have more or fewer public goods. The IP rules not only decide whether you can watch a movie or song, but also relate to things such as industrial products, food grains, labeling, whistleblowers, etc.

For example, current copyright law has stopped any work before 1923 from passing into the public domain for almost a century, something that could still get extended again. The “fair use” doctrine is ambiguous enough for litigious lawyers to sock victims for money. Patent law is a complete mess with frivolous patents hanging as a sword over growing technology companies. If you are a small technology companies, you need the protection of the patent arsenal of a larger company if you want to be able to survive, which means selling out sooner than later. Trying to break a software protection could land you in jail.

Some of the battles are being won. There is a greater awareness of the damage caused by poor IP laws. Technology companies are now politically strong enough to compete with the entertainment industry, who prefer the old approach, though the tech industry has its own pet IP rent seekers too like patent trolls. The faster pace of innovation means that enforcement is simply unable to prevent departure from the laws. For example, increases in disk storage means very soon you could have every single movie ever made on a disk drive. It does make sense still to strike poor laws to prevent people from being law-breakers and for IP owners to understand how to deal with the new realities. Also, Creative Commons has resulted in an explosion of content that successfully competes in important areas, such as college textbooks.

We have to move Swartz’s ideas forward. And in that regard, we have to avoid the Howard Zinn-ish outlook that is clear from his writings, which is that progress is only made by the elites just enough to keep the masses quiet and avoid revolution. That is quite a pessimistic take and it fosters an “all-or-nothing” mentality that can be sometimes self-defeating. It also ignores different strands of progress on the IP front, notably the GNU versus Apache-style licenses, where the latter provides a way for businesses to share in the open source movement. The SOPA success shows that greater awareness and mobilization can help turn the tide and push legislation in a more sensible direction.


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