Though only 26 years old when he took his own life three years ago this month, Aaron Swartz packed enough ideas into his relatively short time to warrant several biographies and innumerable thought pieces. He founded Demand Progress to fight absurd internet censorship stunts like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and while a fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption, served as a contributing editor to the esteemed Cambridge-based periodical The Baffler. Perhaps most impressively, Swartz was one of the few people on Earth who understood how Wikipedia works, all in addition to helping start Reddit and Open Library, both massive and metastasizing resources for an information-seeking public.
For Slate contributing editor and Swartz biographer Justin Peters, neither his subject’s spectacular innovative adventures, nor the saga that ensued after Swartz was caught downloading troves of data from the academic resource service JSTOR (through the MIT network), was enough to convey the story Peters wanted to tell. In his view, the long view presented over 270 pages in The Idealist (Scribner), this struggle began at the dawn of American intellectual property. Centuries before U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz clobbered Swartz with wire-fraud charges that threatened prison time and a potential seven-figure fine, men like Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary fame) fought for the right—copyright, to be specific—to use law as a partition between privilege and access in publishing.
With this crushing research task now behind him, we asked Peters, who splits his time between New York and Boston, about the outcry and reflection that has taken place the World Wide Web over since Swartz’s passing in 2013, and about the generations of ideologues who forged seemingly insurmountable obstacles for any devout free culture idealist.
Writers these days move fast, and even though we may drill deep sometimes, as soon as that’s over, we move on to the next story. What’s it like when you get asked to put an extra lens on something?
After spending so much time writing for Slate, churning out like 1,500 words a day—one blog post in the morning, one in the afternoon—when I started writing this book I thought it would be easy and that I could pop it out in three months. It’s not the same thing at all. It really isn’t. I was so over-confident, thinking framing myself to write about things in the news was like writing a book. It took me like six months to come to my senses and realize this was something I can do on nights and weekends, and once I realized that, I realized that if it was going to be done well, I’d have to really dig into it and not just tell the obvious story of Aaron’s life and death, but really going back to the root causes and the genesis of the laws that killed him.
How much of a public domain aficionado were you before all of this?
I knew that public domain existed, but that was where it ended. In researching the history of copyright, [it was] men—and they almost all were men—who were writing these laws, and there were lawyers, and representatives from big companies and professional groups. They would all sort of spin out the lie that public domain means abandonment, that it was the equivalent of a vacant lot. The if something’s in the public domain, that just means no one cares about it. That the public should want corporations to maintain control over works for 150 years because they care about them—which is complete bullshit.
I don’t find your tone in the book to be very judgmental. You open with the story of Noah Webster, who is sort of the father of American copyright. He’s prolific and hardworking, but also kind of a repulsive character who people don’t like. Is he the villain in this book?
I tried very hard to not tell people what they should believe. My aim was just to lay out the history and the facts of how these laws came together, and once you read that I think it’s easy to draw your own conclusions.
As far as Webster, I found him interesting because he was both a hero and a villain, so to speak. He was one of the first people in post-colonial America to believe that good information being available made the country more free, but then when he realized that freely available information also meant that he wasn’t making much money, then he swung all the way over to the other side. He very much became someone who shifted from a populism to an elitism that pervades all of our copyright laws today.
Is this topic different than a lot of others in that there’s not really a good side and a bad side, but rather a number of sides advocating for different things and for different reasons?
I’ve used words like heroes and villains, but that’s not really accurate. Everyone on every side of every issue thinks they’re doing the best thing for the country—right? To be clear, I wouldn’t have written this book without copyright law, and without the ability to make some money off it. It took me two and a half years. If someone were to tell me to write it and that they weren’t going to pay me, I’d tell them to have someone else write it. I have to pay rent.
At a certain point my book is going to go out of print. I hope not, but the book will go out of print, and then it will just sit. It will probably be in some public libraries, but all the work that I put into this book will become functionally inaccessible because it’s going to remain under copyright for 70 years until my death. When you go from 14 years to like I said—70 years after I die—who does that serve? It doesn’t really serve authors. It serves the people who hold the copyrights to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and shit like that.
The level of detail in which you get into some sequences of events in Aaron’s life is remarkable. Was that made easier or more difficult by the amount of blogging and journaling he did? And by the significant amount of media made by and about him?
There was so much material there. On one hand, it’s a biographer’s dream, because you have all this primary source material. On the other hand, you get to the point where you’re relying so much on this material that you’re wondering how reliable it is. This is his side of the story. Is he being a completely unbiased observer of his own life? How much stock should I put in his recollections? Have any of these things I’m reading in 2015 been edited from the past? I had to wrestle with that. I brought in a lot of secondary material and interviews for when I thought it was good to get in another perspective. Look—having too much primary source material is a good problem to have.
There’s a lot in the book about the VC-startup culture in which Aaron spent some time, and which seemed to simultaneously inspire and disgust him. Does it seem that his skepticism is validated?
He was at the beginning of Reddit, and left after about a year because he basically thought it was worthless, that it was never going to do anything, that it wasn’t worth his time. He was very much an absolutist—like if he couldn’t directly look at what he was doing on a day to day basis and see how those actions were helping to improve the world in the way he wanted, then he would look and say, ‘Oh, this is worth nothing.’ I think the truth is probably somewhere more in the middle. Reddit’s a for-profit company, and the people who founded it got rich, but it’s this really cool and interesting conversational ecosystem that has been used to really bring people together for whatever sort of purpose. He wasn’t one for sitting and waiting to change the world by indirect means.
So what do you think he would have been like 100 years ago?
I think he probably would have been an antiwar poet.
In a lot of cases, Boston is a place where people go when they still want to live in a city but want to get out of New York, where they can’t breathe. With Aaron it was the opposite following the indictment—he wanted to get away from Cambridge because of all the heat he felt on him, but wound up hating New York too. Of the many places he lived through the years, were there any where it seemed he felt most comfortable?
Right up until the indictment, he wrote that Cambridge was the only place he had ever felt comfortable in his life. It was a city of books, and ideas, and there was enough quiet to do your work and people to collaborate with there. He really loved Cambridge, and I think it really came as a shock to him when Cambridge let him down. When the indictment came down, and MIT remained silent, and nobody took the time or initiative to really speak out. It kills me—I didn’t know very much about Aaron or the case until after he died. But a lot of people did know about it, and what did they do? The paper that covered that the best was The Tech, the student paper.
As you researched and wrote this book, did you find any signs of intelligent life in the justice system or in any legislative corner which suggests there is a chance that the law may catch up with technology in some way or another?
No. No. Just leave it at no. There are individual legislators, like there always are, who get it. That’s great, hooray, they get it. Now where are the hundreds of millions of dollars that you need to convince everyone else that these are the laws we need? When Aaron’s Law has come up in the House or the Senate, it’s just died. Congratulations on helping to shut down SOPA, but that’s not a final victory. It’s going to take sustained attention and activism.
Did you have trouble separating the story of Swartz from the story of what he was fighting for?
That’s the main reason why I spent so much time on the history, and why in the chapters that were about Aaron, to go away from him for at least 2,000 words and look at some broader stuff that’s going on out there. The issues Aaron was fighting preceded him, and they’ll succeed him. He’s become a sort of a symbol of these laws, but I hope people will come away from the book thinking it’s more than a sad story.
This is a big story. Aaron has been cast as the hero because the Department of Justice sucks at using the internet, but I bet there are as many people out there who think Ortiz did the right thing, and that laws are laws, and that rules are rules, and that if you break them, there are consequences. There are probably more people who feel that way then who feel the other way. That’s how it has always been, and that’s probably the way that it will always be.
Join Justin Peters and John Summers of The Baffler this Thursday, January 28 at 7pm at Workbar Cambridge for a “free public discussion of Aaron Swartz’s life, ideals, and prosecution.”
Ed. Note: Justin Peters once profiled DigBoston News + Features Editor Chris Faraone for Columbia Journalism Review in 2011. It feels pretentious to mention, but the disclaimer felt necessary.
SO MUCH FOR COPYRIGHT
Select excerpts from ‘The Idealist’
Peters on the Father of Copyright Noah Webster
Even his fiercest foes would have acknowledged his diligence and ambition. By the time he was only twenty-seven years old, Webster had already written and published a series of grammar textbooks and a collection of political essays—an impressive feat in a time when ‘author’ was about as sensible a career ambition as ‘astronaut.’
Peters on Aaron Swartz and the JSTOR hack
His actions shouldn’t have surprised anyone. If the city of Cambridge had compiled a yearbook on all its residents, Aaron Swartz would surely have been named Most Likely to Try to Download the Entire JSTOR corpus. Swartz was an ideologue who had spent the past few years not only bulk-downloading large data sets that were inaccessible to the public, but also writing and speaking on the moral necessity of doing so.
On digital paradoxes:
Theoretically, computers and the Internet can be used to promote congruence, tolerance, and understanding. In the real world, however, forward progress will always be slowed by social and political friction, often generated by those who do not think these goals represent progress at all. Internet enthusiasts often presume that the network inevitably leads to yes, even though the world has always, always, always been defined by no.
‘RIGHT OF PASSAGE
We asked the author of The Idealist to explain some of the backroom deals that led to current copyright and intellectual property laws. Trust us—this stuff is sexier than it sounds.
The International Copyright Act of 1891
Peters: “This really gave rise to the modern sort of best-seller publishing industry. It was also the first time that publishers and businesses came together and they knowingly and strategically deployed all this moral language and rhetoric about intellectual property and owners owning their own work. They hammered this across the country in newspaper articles and essays and Sunday sermons for a decade. They enlisted all these famous authors to speak incessantly about the morality of copyright to convince wicked poor Americans—who were benefitting from the widespread availability of cheap literature and sing it to educate themselves—that it was better for them for books to be expensive as opposed to being free. That put together the game plan of the copyright playbook for the first time, and things haven’t really changed much since then.”
The Copyright Act of 1976
Peters: “We’re still sort of grappling with the implications of this today. That was the law that said computers are coming, the photocopier is here, and we’re also not quite sure what’s going to come next. So we need to craft this law to be as wide-ranging as possible so that it applies to technologies that aren’t even invented yet. It’s this monstrous long and unparsable law that is so broad and vague that it makes it very hard for new technologies to come around.”