It has been five years since Aaron Swartz, an internet prodigy who co-founded Reddit and Creative Commons, took his own life in January 2013 when facing the prosecution of the US federal government for downloading research articles from the JSTOR database.
The international community should remember him as a pioneer of the Free Culture Movement. His ideas and legacies should be celebrated and carried on by every internet user who believes in the value of sharing knowledge.
In January 2011, Swartz was arrested for downloading a large number of research articles from JSTOR which offers digital access to scholarship behind a paywall. Trying to make an example of Swartz, US federal prosecutors Carman Ortiz and Steve Heymann charged him with 13 computer felonies that could carry a maximum of 35 years of imprisonment.
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig considered the prosecution “out of proportion” and a form of “government bully”, which, according to Aaron’s parents, contributed to his death.
In response to Aaron’s tragic death, a bill dubbed Aaron’s Law was introduced in the US Congress in 2013 to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under which a violation of terms of services could become a felony.
To honor Swartz’s memory, it is important for the international community to continuously question and challenge the copyright regime. The research articles that Swartz downloaded from JSTOR are part of the scholarship produced by researchers with financial support from governments around the world.
Since the research activities reported in the papers are funded by taxpayers, it is absurd that the publishers can charge university libraries and researchers exorbitant fees for accessing the research papers.
The paywall of the digital databases such as JSTOR not only increased the financial burden of the universities in the developed world; it also made the scholarship in areas such as public health and environmental sciences unaffordable for researchers in the developing world.
Inspired by Aaron Swartz, websites such as Sci-Hub have made millions of research articles freely available online. Creative Commons, an organization that Swartz co-founded, also offers a viable alternative for content creators to distribute their creative works without the restriction of copyright.
With more people joining the Free Culture Movement, I hope the world will soon realize the vision Aaron Swartz described in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto – to make privatization of knowledge a thing of the past.
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