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Hacking in the Name of the Commons

Jacob Perl
December 11, 2016


by Jacob L. Perl

from the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Discussed in this essay: The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet, by Justin Peters. Scribner, 2016, 352 pages.

SOMETIMES FRIENDS and I pile into a car and head out to Wisconsin’s Sugar River, double-buckled like we’re 12. We rent tubes and tie them together and float on the current, drinking, occasionally singing, and losing any phones we’ve brought. I love to tube the Sugar River, and not just for the chance to share a little beer with the teenagers who spend their summer afternoons there.

Thanks to cantankerous 19th-century fishermen like Frank Wade (all honor to him), rivers in Wisconsin are not owned by anyone, and that makes floating in them feel right. In the 1890s, Wade made a point of ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs put up by the private Willow River Club, fished their water, fought them in court, and won, helping establish that rivers here aren’t anyone’s, that they’re un-ownable. Being on Wisconsin rivers feels like participating in a hidden order, humane and primal. And while it might not seem it, the story of Wisconsin rivers is part of the same story as that of Aaron Swartz, the Internet’s Jewish folk hero who got into trouble for downloading articles from an academic database, presumably to give them away, and after two years of unrelenting legal pressure, killed himself.

In The Idealist, Justin Peters characterizes Aaron Swartz as sharp and charismatic, but awkward, out-of-place, and unwilling to bend himself to fit into systems he saw as broken. A high school dropout, then a Stanford dropout, he moved from project to project, helping to develop the Creative Commons (a radical alternative to copyright) and to defeat SOPA, a bill that would have legalized Internet censorship, all the while arguing that information such as scientific journal articles ought to be free to all. “They’re so substantial,” he said (speaking at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) about the fees that academic databases charge, “that people who are studying in India, instead of studying in the United States, don’t have this kind of access . . .”

They’re locked out from all of these journals. They’re locked out from our entire scientific legacy. I mean, a lot of these journal articles, they go back to the Enlightenment. Every time someone has written ... a scientific paper, it’s been scanned and digitized and put in these collections.

That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work ... It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons ...

PETERS DOES a good job of not only telling Aaron Swartz’s story but situating it in a broader context. The questions raised by Swartz, and by Peters in the telling, are not just about what we want the Internet to look like, but what we want our system of intellectual property to look like. They’re about pulp novels, jukeboxes, libraries, and -- for someone willing to extrapolate a bit -- rivers too.

Before Peters even gets to Swartz, he gives a hundred pages of a wild story that begins centuries ago and is stuffed with wholly American characters. Noah Webster (“a lobbyist and a proselytizer, a prig, a pedant, a prodigy”) haranguing an uncaring and sometimes hostile American populace to support the idea of copyright so that he could copyright his own grammar book. John Phillips Sousa damning the record players and reminiscing about how people used to sit on their porches and sing. Pinkertons and Rockefellers. The computers of 1964 titillating attendees of the World’s Fair. Peters makes the history of copyright in America colorful, filled with big egos and big talkers.

Swartz then joins this unruly conversation. Peters tells how Swartz made a name for himself in Internet chat-rooms as a teenager working on shaping a more functional Internet, and of his further accomplishments — his work on the Creative Commons, his contribution to the social news site Reddit, his idealism, his triumphs.

As the book moves into its final chapter, the story becomes claustrophobic. In his early twenties, Swartz allegedly put a computer in an open MIT closet and downloaded a bunch of articles from JSTOR (an academic site that charges fees) over the course of days, with the idea of opening the articles to the public. The FBI claimed that the activity was illegal, and when Swartz rejected plea deals they threatened him with ninety-five years in prison. Swartz fought for two years with their threats hanging over him, lost his money doing it, and took his own life at 26.
In January 2013, shortly after his suicide, Amy Goodman interviewed “free culture” advocate and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig about Swartz. When she asked him about Swartz’s state of mind before the suicide, the professor, Swartz’s elder and collaborator, choked up, and said,

Yeah, Aaron was depressed. He was rationally depressed. You know, he was losing everything, because his government was overreaching in the most ridiculous way to persecute him, not just because of this, but because of what he had done before, liberating government documents that were supposed to be in the public domain. . . . He wasn’t depressed because he had no loving parents — he did have loving parents who did everything they could for him — or because he didn’t have loving friends. Every time you saw Aaron, he was surrounded by five or ten different people who loved and respected and worked with him. He was depressed because he was increasingly recognizing that the idealism he brought to this fight maybe wasn’t enough.

A story that starts out expansive and fast-moving becomes constricted. But Peters has situated the story inside a broad and ongoing conversation, so that we can again force open the narrative and breathe a little bit.

ONE OF THE MORE interesting ideas Peters’s book brings to light is that before it was established, copyright was not understood as a moral right by many. When British authors fought for international copyright, for example, to protect their right to profit from their sales in the U.S., Americans were skeptical. “For the average undercapitalized American,” Peters writes, “cheap books were the only books, which made the moral case for international copyright something of a hard sell ­— especially when it was made by citizens of a country that had recently burned America’s executive mansion and once tried to tax its tea.”

It was not intuitive to those Americans that authors owned the books they wrote. Peters argues that many Americans saw the limitations of the early copyright system, which allowed so many books to be freely copied, not as a flaw in the system but one of its strengths -- “a feature not a bug.” But if a person’s art is not automatically seen as their property, what does that say about our other ideas of property? How much of our idea of property is learned?

That question makes the stories in this book most relevant -- not just in terms of scientific articles, but in terms of rivers, forests, seeds, and more. The questions that Peters pursues extend from the enclosure of the commons in the 18th century to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal of tomorrow. If you build a house, who owns it? If you write a song, can you sell it? If you dam a river, is the energy yours? And what about the needs of the people downriver?

Jacob L. Perl, a member of our editorial board, is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, and works in the medical field.