After Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American Harvard professor, was erroneously arrested for breaking and entering, Barack Obama spoke up. The President at first overdid his criticism of the police, but in the end played the meritable role of peacemaker, inviting both Prof. Gates and the arresting policeman to the White House for a “Beer Summit.” In time, Sgt. James Crowley even gave Prof. Gates a pair of the handcuffs used on the professor.

Now President Obama should help make peace in a separate Cambridge case and consider another “Beer Summit”—in fact a whole series—between copyright lobbyists and America’s librarians, educators and consumer activists.

Dead in the copyright wars is Aaron H. Swartz (photo at right), the 26-year-old computer genius, RSS co-author, Reddit programmer and information-access activist who apparently hanged himself in Brooklyn while facing a possible prison term of up to 35 years and a possible $1 million fine for alleged computer-related offenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I won’t say here if Swartz was guilty under current law; I’ll instead refer you to some highly nuanced comments from Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig.

What is clear is that legal actions against the widely admired Swartz were too severe for the circumstances, and that the copyright industries have been generous donors to the Obama campaign, among many others within both major parties. Significantly, JSTOR, a nonprofit that houses the scientific and literary journals to which Swartz allegedly obtained illegal access, decided against pursuing civil charges. Swartz never sought to enrich himself financially through his activism over the years; rather, he sought to liberate information for the advancement of knowledge and well-informed civic debate, which current copyright laws so often can crimp.

* * *

Here’s how President Obama should respond as a peacemaker:

First, the President should immediately apologize to Swartz’s parents, who correctly described his death as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Surely no one in President Obama’s Justice Department wanted Swartz to die. But from Attorney General Eric Holder on down, Obama appointees there unwittingly set the tone for what followed.

I wonder if today people in the department are aware of Aaron Swartz’s blog post headlined “A Moment Before Dying,” where he told of the severe depression of a character named “Alex.” What’s more, in 2007, he wrote of feeling sick and thinking of suicide. Did Justice know of that one, and if so, when?

Swartz hanged himself on January 11, 2013, and if an MIT blogger was right about the authorities apprehending him on January 6, 2011, the suicide came disturbingly close to the anniversary.

In apologizing to Swartz’s parents, Obama in effect would be reaching out to the hacker community and Internet advocates in general, and letting them know he would reconsider the appropriateness of present copyright laws and enforcement. Not only would he show compassion, but also political savvy here—given many Democrats’ reliance on Internet-smart activists, not just millions from copyright-related industries.

Obama should remember how the Republicans bungled away the Hispanic vote. Long term, advocacy of Draconian copyright laws will be a time-bomb for both parties as the number of digital natives grows, but especially for the Democrats, who so often have been the main beneficiaries of the related donations. “Out of options,” Swartz wrote in his last blog entry in a reference to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, “it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide,” and appropriately or not, the quote has gone viral in the context of Swartz’s very real suicide.

Second, at the first of the Beer Summits, Barack Obama should offer specifics in favor of the mitigation of overdone copyright laws, especially the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which, in some cases, gave us copyright terms of up to 120 years—an attack on schools and libraries, as well as a promoter of confrontations between copyright holders and other citizens. Without massive campaign donations over the decades, would terms be as long?

Third, the President should work toward two well-stocked national digital library systems, one serving public library-related needs and the other serving rather different academic needs, with both universally accessible and with both sharing countless gigabytes of data and intertwining in other ways (I originally wanted one system but grew to understand how two would be better).

Yes, so far I’ve sounded somewhat down on copyright holders. But here is the kicker—something to show that I in fact am recommending Beer Summits fair to both sides, not an attack on the basic concept of copyright. I actually feel that the total our country spends on intellectual property, at least in the case of library-style items, is shockingly less than it should be. Just 0.2 percent of the average American household’s budget goes for books and other reading, not because books and the rest are so cheap but because typical families don’t buy enough of them; clearly the industry is in dire need of new business models. So let’s work toward a Library-Publisher Complex, a way for publishers to benefit from the public’s sympathies toward libraries and actually come out far, far ahead financially. With more information, analysis and culture out there for free, we would not just smarten up the country but also deescalate the copyright wars and honor Aaron Swartz’s noble intentions along the way.

January 14, 4:45 a.m.: President Obama would do well to read comments from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who, beyond expressing his condolences over Swartz’s death, wants the university to reexamine its legal actions. Ideally the President can show similar thoughtfulness.

Editor’s Note: This article, which originally appeared on David Rothman’s, is Creative Commons-licensed content.


  1. To quote the theme song from BERETTA, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

    Civil rights activists for racial justice knew the punishment they were facing when they marched, and they did it anyway. Civil rights activists in China know what will happen to them if they are caught, but they do it anyway.

    That’s called moral courage.

    Most of these so-call freedom fighters of the Internet act like a bunch of brats who think they can get away with whatever they do because Mommy and Daddy will bail them out, or they are too cool for punishment.

    When reality hits and they get caught, they whine and get an expensive lawyer, or they take the extreme way out like Swartz may have.

    That’s called moral cowardice.

  2. I do consider copyright law like the DPA (Disney Protection Act) or the Sony Bono law as a bit much, but it is not draconian. But to be fair, there are some people who just want free stuff on the Internet completely available to them and do not respect intellectual property. Elsewhere I saw postings about ebook ethics and someone who thinks it is ethical to remove DRM from library books and send copies to friends. There is no respect there. Why should they respect us?

    Would copyright beer summit help? I’m not sure. They are many penny anti players in the game who will do as they wish and probably not respect any guidelines agreed upon.

  3. @1, that’s all very self-righteous and even more vulgar than I assume you meant it to be.

    I’m not saying Mr. Swartz didn’t have his own issues, but from the reaction of MIT and others, it is clear that some key people that persecuted Mr. Swartz are having second thoughts abt their actions that most probably contributed to Mr. Swartz’ suicide.

    Mr. Swartz was an imperfect champion and activist for open access to information, but the prosecutor and MIT knew perfectly well what they were up to: Make an example of Mr. Swartz to protect their content monopolies.

    To say Mr. Swartz’s suicide is cowardice shows a lack of age or insight on your part, ma’am.

  4. Deran, suicide often is a form of cowardice. Just ask those of us who are survivors or look at the stats and you’ll find that is true.

    I was, however, talking about moral cowardice where someone does something just because they think they can get away with it, then freak out when they get caught. They say they are moral champions but prove to be otherwise when they must face the authorities.

    The anti-copyright crowd needs to realize that they are not exempt from the law, and the copyright industry is worth billions a year just in the US so some of them can expect to be used as legal examples.

    If they aren’t willing to lose their house and spend time in jail as someone’s bitch, they need to shut up and stop stealing.

  5. And I meant to mention that this morning FireDogLake blog has an excellent little essay comparing the suicide of actress and activist Jean Seaberg’s suicide after her persecution by the FBI and US federal prosecutors, and the death of Aaron Swartz. The essay is good in that it dispels the notion that Swartz’s suicide was a singular event in the face of governmental persecution.

  6. Another example of how the IP industry has been allowed to neuter basic rights such as fair use is the YouTube case of “Buffy vs Edward” described here: We allow corporate interests to operate in cyberspace in ways that would be unthinkable in real space.
    We have simply failed to honor the intent of the US Constitution with respect to copyright. It’s purpose is to advance knowledge and creativity, NOT to assure corporate revenue streams.

  7. Frank, without corporate or creator revenue streams, would Warner spend millions of dollars to make the next BATMAN movie out of the goodness of their hearts?

    Making money isn’t evil just because a corporation does it.

    Using the law to stop people from stealing your stuff isn’t evil whether we’re talking about a entertainment corporation or a woman losing her purse to a punk in the Walmart parking lot.

    Copyright law protects those who create knowledge and entertainment.

  8. Marilynn – I do see where you’re coming from, and to a degree, your points are valid. However! I think you may be missing the larger point here; or, more likely, you may simply be choosing to focus on certain facts, and not others.

    If you haven’t already, I would suggest reading Chris Meadows’ post about the Aaron Schwartz situation. It was posted on TeleRead last night, and you can access it here:

    Chris makes a few important points:

    1. Yes, Schwartz did commit a crime…
    2. And yet, “the entities that Swartz arguably stole from—JSTOR and MIT—didn’t want to prosecute.” “However” …
    3. “a victim’s desire to press charges is not necessary for a [U.S.] prosecutor to prosecute a case, and prosecutor Carmen M. Ortiz decided to continue to press charges.”

    I think it’s fairly clear to anyone who’s followed this story that Ortiz did not make the decision to press charges of her own accord because of the horrific and evil nature of Schwartz’s crimes. (Obviously.) I don’t happen to know why she did decide to prosecute, although as others have pointed out, I would imagine it to be a cross between “making an example” and having a metaphorical bone to pick with uber-genius whiz-kid types who’ve seemingly come into this world with more advantages than most.

    But for the most part, that’s now beside the point. An important point is this: Thirty-five years in prison and a $1M fine? For a crime in which the purported victims had already declined to press charges? Please.

    I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that *part* of the reason so many people are finding this situation to be such a shame has to do with the fact that Aaron was very clearly on his way to changing the world in very positive ways. This kid was very much a one-in-a-million type, and it’s simply sad (and even frustrating, perhaps) to see him gone, regardless of the circumstances.

    Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that super-intelligent types are in any way above the law. They’re not. Obviously. But sometimes, it’s exactly those types of people who display to the rest of us *which* laws deserve to be changed, and why, and in what ways. Aaron was one of those people. And now he’s not.

    That is all. Carry on.

  9. @Deran, @Marilyn, @GregM and @Frank:

    D: Yes, compassion by the feds would have gone a long way. We’re not talking about a real-life Joe Soprano; rather, a disturbed and well-intentioned genius full of potential. Thanks for citing the Seaberg example. More at

    M: So you do think Aaron Swartz deserved 35 years and $1M in fines (the possible max) despite his pure motives? Should the feds–especially if aware of his history of depression–have tried so hard to make an example out of him? Even after JSTOR declined to file for civil damages? A young man is dead. Did the legal system kill him? Like Deran, I very much think it was at least a contributing cause.

    Also, in citing the civil rights movement, are you at least unwittingly implying that current copyright laws are unfair just like the old Jim Crow abominations? If so, although fervently in favor of the basic idea of copyright, I’d agree we need lots of changes there. And new business models as well. Just as I wrote earlier in my call for a Library-Publisher Complex, I don’t think America is spending ENOUGH on intellectual property; and more reliance on the library model could help rectify that and reduce conflicts between copyright holders and others, including future Swartzes. If you want creators protected, think of new business models to create more revenue for them in ways friendlier to society at large. Use Americans’ love of “free” as a tailwind, not a headwind, and you’ll make creators richer along the way. And speaking of creators, what about those on the technical side; should we torment people like Aaron Swartz—proven creators of wealth and jobs?

    G: Thanks for your thoughts. Although anti-DRM, I’m also anti-piracy (in fact, I believe that DRM might even encourage it by reducing the value of honestly purchased e-books). Now–about whether the library model would end piracy. Absolutely not. But it would reduce piracy, since it’s harder to steal what’s either free or at least more easily available than it is now. In terms of rewards, life can only get better for publishers and writer than under the current system where just .2 percent of household expenditures go for reading materials.

    F: Totally agree, Frank! “Progress of science and the useful arts.” “Limited time…” I understand the need for reasonable financial incentives, but that’s different from government-promoted gouges and Bono-length terms.


  10. The individual facts of this case are sad, I don’t disagree with that. I also don’t disagree that the prosecutor was looking for someone to use as an example.

    However, Swartz in these comments has been turned into a poster boy for the evils of copyright, and I totally disagree with that.

    He also proved to be a very poor champion for the causes he supposedly stood for.

  11. For those who are genuinely interested in learning more about this particular situation, I wanted to point out just two more blog posts that are worth your (very valuable) time.

    Chris Meadows, by the way, linked to both of these posts in the item he filed late last night about Aaron Schwartz. But I’d like to point them out again:

    I think this post was written by a friend of Chris Meadows’. It explains why you should very seriously consider e-signing the petition calling to remove the D.A. for prosecutorial overreach, even if you would never normally sign petitions of that sort.

    An absolute must-read. Lawrence Lessig, who knows more about this situation than probably anyone else (save Aaron himself) shares his POV. Like Aaron, Lessig is out-of-control smart.

  12. David, you and I both know that, if this had gone to trial or even a plea bargain, the sentence and the fine would have been much smaller or nonexistent. The fine and sentence possibility was just shock and awe on the prosecutor’s part. And, it certainly got the public, the anti-copyright types, and Swartz’s attention.

    It is a great pity that Swartz proved to be so emotionally fragile that he took his own life, but, if his family and friends didn’t see that coming and put him on a suicide watch or into care, then how could the prosecutor have known?

    As to what I think should have happened, I would have been perfectly happy to have seen him with a minor fine and the exorbitant lawyer fees as punishment with some form of probation to prevent him from doing the same thing again.

    And, no, of course, I wasn’t comparing copyright to Jim Crow laws. I was saying that, if you believe a law is unjust and you are willing to break it, then you should be willing to accept the punishment that comes with it as part of the fight. The black men who sat down at the counters at Woolworth’s in Greensboro to fight segregation did so with the knowledge they were breaking the law and would go to jail, and they did it anyway. With dignity.

    Breaking copyright law in the belief you can get away with it, then whining like a shoplifting brat that it isn’t your fault is just pathetic.

    • Fair enough, Marilynn. I definitely hear what you’re saying (and I’m sure David does as well), and although I said this earlier, I’ll say it again: Much of what you’re saying is right. (Or rather, I agree with much of what you’re saying. Whether something is “right” or “wrong” in a situation like this is a subjective matter, I suppose.

      Also: I personally appreciate you sticking up for your opinion and your point-of-view, even if they may be unpopular in this particular community. That’s the sort of constructive dialogue that has a way of leading to change, after all.

      One question for you, though: At the end of your comment you alluded to the fact that Aaron was “whining like a shoplifting brat that it [wasn’t his] fault.” Is that something you can elaborate on? I don’t remember reading or hearing anything along those lines, and out of pure curiosity, I guess, I’m curious to know a bit more about any public reaction he may have had after learning about the charges that were being brought against him. Thanks Marilynn.

  13. My goodness, Ms. Byerly, the way you gloat over this fellow’s death. A very unsavory quality in a human.

    I’m not anti-copyright per se, I don’t want any of my novels, out of print or not, to be abused or “re-mixed”, but I can also see that content cartel corporations have way over stepped their usefulness as far the balance between profiting and impeding access to content.

    And the comparison between Mr. Swartz’s actions and the actions of persons involved in the 1950s civil rights movement in the US is highly spurious. Those people who bravely faced segregationists and the glenn becks of their day were a part of a massive, well organized movement, and where they may well have confronted death and prison, they also had a well organized mass network backing them up. The open access activists do not. When Mr. Swartz was confronted by the rapacious prosecutor and the full weight of the federal government, Mr. Swartz did not have amass movement ready to step in to aid him. So he went to friends and family for help.

    And finally, I just saw a series of articles reporting abt how MIT is starting an internal investigation into their role in the prosecution of Mr. Swartz and how this may have contributed to his death. Perhaps an internal audit would also serve you well?

  14. I glory in no man’s death, Deran. And I am not the one here turning him into a martyr for their agenda like some here.

    The Greensboro 4 were just four kids in college, not representatives of some specific movement, so they are a perfectly adequate as an example of what I am talking about.

    What I have been saying is perfectly summarized in my quote from BERETTA, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” You must make your decisions and accept the outcome. That’s what the real world is all about.

    No one deliberately “drove” Swartz to suicide. He was perfectly competent to do that himself.

    Do we stop persecuting crimes because some poor soul may kill himself rather than face punishment? Hell, no.

  15. Dan said, “One question for you, though: At the end of your comment you alluded to the fact that Aaron was “whining like a shoplifting brat that it [wasn’t his] fault.” Is that something you can elaborate on?”

    I wasn’t talking about Swartz when I said that. I’d gone from the specifics of Swartz to the comments about the Jim Crow law comparison to copyright theft that David made.

  16. @Marilynn, I don’t think that you understand that fair use is not stealing or infringing or anything bad at all. I cited the case of Jonathan McIntosh ( because it has none of the confounding elements in the Aaron Swartz story. McIntosh did not commit suicide nor has he broken any law. Indeed, his remix is used by the US Copyright Office as an exemplar of non-infringing fair use.
    Yet, despite being right on all counts and following all available appellate procedures, Lionsgate is still able to abrogate McIntosh’s fair use rights with impunity.
    YouTube (Google) has decided to allow this travesty of justice because it is the path of least resistance for them. So much for Google’s “do no evil” mantra. And Google is not alone in this regard. The reality of American copyright law is that it is stacked against creative, independent artists.

  17. Frank, since we weren’t discussing fair use in relationship to copyright and it was so far off from what I was discussing, I didn’t bother to comment.

    I agree that a lot of bad things have been done on both sides of the issue, and the line between copyright and fair use is currently one of the battle lines being fought in courtrooms and harassment from both sides. Until that line is more firmly drawn, bad things will continue to be done on both sides. That’s what happens in a war like this.

    As to Google, anyone who believes Google’s mantra is what they do isn’t paying attention. For example, the only way authors kept Google from putting their books online as so many free webpages was to take them to court. Google is in it for Google.

  18. The crime that Aaron Swartz was accused of is hardly an instance of authors wronged by a hacker who denied them income by downloading files they otherwise would have been compensated for. JSTOR is a repository of academic articles. The people who write those articles are not paid to write by JSTOR nor do they share in the revenues that JSTOR collects on a per download basis.
    The JSTOR model has become standard and many academics are highly dissatisfied with it. The proposed alternative is Open Access. Here’s a nice primer on the subject:
    Academic writing is not motivated by the same factors that drive writers of fiction. It is an entirely different game.

  19. @ Byerly – Your site is exactly what I needed for some writing help. Thank you for creating

    On Swartz:

    Throughout this entire saga there seems to be a theme of the “Nerd as Noble Savage”, which states that people with personal quirks, technical savvy and mental illnesses should be allowed privileges that normal Muggles do not have. Swartz may have been a nerd, but for all intents and purposes, and lets not mince words, he was a criminal. He took something that did not belong to him. You get caught doing that sort of thing, you face the consequences and accept responsibility like a grown man.

    But at the same time, I find this whole saga rather amusing. It would seem that the Creative Commons Technorati has finally realized the existence of Prison-Industrial Complex that uses mistakes and misdemeanors that young people make as an excuse to use to destroy their future, after using them as cheaper-than-Chinese labour. This myopia should come as no surprise of course, seeing that the Creative Commons crowd seems to believe that the only rights worth fighting for are the type that allow one to download subbed anime and episodes of the Walking Dead from ISOHunt. One would have had thought that Lessig et al would have had seen that the very system that persecuted Swartz got its practice on young black men with misdemeanor drug possession charges

    The failure of the Technorati (the Boing-Boing, CC , Reddit types ) to see their “issues” as a part of a greater stuggle stems from a fallacy that has 1s and 0s as things that deserve freedom in much the same way that certain people did 150 years ago. Adhering to this fallacious thinking has caused them to not realize that the flaws in a justice system that gives people exorbitant fines for gigs of stolen files, are the same ones that damn young people of colour to being social outcasts.

    The real issue is not that Swartz decided to take the easy way out because he couldn’t face up to hat he did. The real issue is how to change a legal system that sacrifices its nation’s children like the Caanaites did theirs to Moloch. And the best way to do that, I feel, is to move to a judge based legislative systems for misdemeanors and minor felonies like what Swartz and hundreds of people of colour commit daily.

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