Good Reasons Not to Mess with Writers' Copyrights

Article excerpt

Open-access people, meet the copyright laws. Much has been written about Aaron Swartz, the computer genius who killed himself after being charged with a variety of cybercrimes. Some ardent friends accuse the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of having cruelly called in the police to deal with him.

By then, MIT had foiled multiple attempts to illegally download academic journals and realized that someone had broken in to a wire closet to achieve the same end. MIT security analysts had also detected activity from China on the netbook being used, making them extra wary.

MIT had no idea who it was at the time -- not that this should have made a difference. But some Swartz defenders argue that the tech prodigy rated special treatment.

"When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, (he) might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a computer company. But they called the cops on him. Cops," said an apparently shocked Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive digital library.

The infantilizing culture of academia has led some university wards to expect leniency when they misbehave. In any case, Swartz wasn't playing with databases. He was trying to strip them of their economic value. Also, for the record, he was not an MIT student. He was a 26-year-old with a fellowship at Harvard. And if he had been an undergrad, so what? MIT isn't day care.

Swartz's mission was to "liberate" the databases owned by JSTOR, a nonprofit subscription service selling access to academic journals. Many open-access agitators hold that JSTOR has no right to charge money for its wares. Odd that some of his most vocal defenders are book authors dependent on copyright protection for their livelihoods. …