Aaron Swartz: A Tragic Early Death

Saturday, 12 January 2013 23:02

The NYT and others have reported on the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz at age 26. Aaron was a computer whiz who made major breakthroughs in software while still in his early teens. I knew Aaron because he e-mailed me with questions about some of my writings. After reading my book The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, he asked me why we hadn't made it available in html. When I told him that no one on my staff had the time, he volunteered to do it himself. We continued to occasionally exchange e-mails and met in person a few times. He clearly was a serious committed person.

I have no special insight into the events surrounding his suicide. He had in the past had problems with depression, but there can be little doubt that he was very troubled by the prosecution hanging over his head. The Justice Department was pressing charges after he had been caught trying to download a huge number of academic articles through the M.I.T. computer system. The point was to make this work freely available to the public at large. While both M.I.T. and JSTOR, the system he was alleged to be hacking, asked to have the charges dropped, the Justice Department insisted on pressing the case, threatening Aaron with a lengthy prison sentence.

It is difficult not to be outraged by this part of the story. Here is an administration that could find nothing to prosecute at the Wall Street banks who enriched themselves by passing on hundreds of billions of dollars of fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities and complex derivative instruments, but found the time and resources to prosecute a young man who wanted to make academic research freely available to the world.

It would be an appropriate tribute to Aaron if his death prompted a re-examination of copyright and patent laws. These laws are clearly acting as an impediment to innovation and progress. If economists had the allegiance to efficiency that they claim, and not just serving the rich and powerful, the profession would be devoting its energies to finding more modern mechanisms for promoting creative work and innovation.

Unfortunately most economists are comfortable with the status quo, regardless of how corrupt it might be. Let's hope that Aaron's tragic death can be an inspiration to revamping intellectual property and making a better world.  


 Addendum: typos fixed from earlier posting, thanks to Robert Salzberg.