The Cost of Knowledge: The Case of Aaron Swartz and the Rights of the Author

By Richard Elliott

I make a habit of buying all of my books and most of my magazines. I do often find myself imprisoned amidst arrays of paperbacks and routinely succumb to the need for some form of rearrangement. (See the late Christopher Hitchens’ masterly essay ‘Prisoner of Shelves’ on the subject of bibliophilia in his collection Arguably for a lucid exploration of these issues). However, there are three reasons why the burden of owning physical copies is, to me, a necessary evil: I hate reading off of a screen (not for any Luddite inclination, but it can cause stress to my eyes), I can return to a shelf at any point in my life and peruse any particular volume with ease, and, most importantly, I presume that the author, in labouring to complete their work and putting a price tag on it for sale, wants to be financially recompensed for their efforts.

This is what this entire debate centres around: the right of the author, and those who choose to publish their work, against theft (potentially on a grand scale).

The case which I allude to specifically is the case of Aaron Swartz, the bright young computer programmer who died in Brooklyn in January this year. Swartz faced federal punishment on a grand scale for mass computer fraud. He was also charged for, among other offences, systematically downloading approximately 70 gigabytes of data from the academic online system JSTOR during the late months of 2010 and the early months of 2011. He had the intention of making all of this data publically accessible. Before the charges could be brought against him in court, Swartz sadly took his own life in his Brooklyn apartment.

Aaron Swartz committed suicide after facing charges of fraud and of downloading 70 gigabytes of data from the academic online system JSTOR.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide after facing charges of fraud and of downloading 70 gigabytes of data from the academic online system JSTOR.

The relevance of the debate will continue so long as the philosophical and legal issues concerning freedom of speech and freedom of distribution are discussed. And with the news on Monday that the trial of Bradley Manning is now underway, this case bears more relevance this week than usual. The ethos that motivated Swartz’s actions was the notion that academic work should be free and accessible to the public as a matter of principle. The American authorities who charged Swartz didn’t share this ethos; and neither do I.

I contend that it is the fundamental error of the ‘wiki’-style approach to information to say that people have some sort of ‘right’ to free knowledge. Many supporters of Swartz and his ethos hold the view that all information should be shared publicly, at the expense of the person who creates or provides that information. Yet if we were to turn the tables, and see it through the eyes of someone who has spent months, potentially years on a book, or a paper for a journal, that person would be well within their right to expect to be recompensed for their endeavours. What right has someone like Aaron Swartz got to deprive them of this very fair expectation?

Many friends of mine who work within academia hold their own personal convictions that they would be very happy and indeed are very happy to have the work they produce for academic journals and books shared publicly for free. And many of them do openly share their work. Fine; but they cannot presume this has a universal consensus. Many authors would be horrified to learn that a published work, which involved long hours of furnishing, was being distributed freely and illegally to whoever wanted it. This was the crux of the attitude that Swartz was suggesting. If someone owns the copyright to a work, or has the moral right to it under the Berne Convention, then nobody else has the right to solicit or share that work without prior consent.

There are perhaps, one could argue, varying shades of justification to sharing information in this way: the small academic journal which struggles to break even with its subscriptions is, in my view, more deserving of receiving payment to keep itself afloat than perhaps the publishers of million-sellers such as Twilight or the latest paperback tripe pumped out by Paul Coelho. But this kind of talk is splitting hairs: it doesn’t do anything to undermine the notion that the person who produces a piece of work and those who publish it would be justified in expecting their service rewarded in turn.

The entire premise of working for something is that you can expect (if the service befits or creates a demand) reaping the profits or at least be entitled to receive payment for that service. If an author wishes to hold the view that knowledge is not a commodity, then fine. But to accept it without prior knowledge that this is so doesn’t escape the charge of theft and/or piracy. I am not here to make judgements about Aaron Swartz, as he was never officially taken to trial due to his regrettable circumstances; but the approach which he suggested to others, and which it appears he himself practiced, is not morally justifiable.

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