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Aaron Swartz and the Morality of Hoarding Knowledge

by nobody Friday, Aug. 05, 2011 at 10:20 PM

Activist-programmer Aaron Swartz was recently arrested for breaking into an MIT network closet to copy academic journals from the JSTOR system.

Background information:

The criminal prosecution of Swartz appears to be a move by the government to help strengthen intellectual property laws. The battle to enforce and extend intellectual property is, without a doubt, the grand battle of the day. It is central to a few key industries, including computer engineering, computer software, television and film, music, bioengineering, and medicine. Beyond that, there are patents not only on software, but business processes.

Within the most advanced economies of the modern age, intellectual property can produce more wealth, and generate more cash revenues, than physical property. Look at a company like Apple Computers or Microsoft, or consider all the prescription drug companies. Their wealth is in intellectual property.

During the industrial age, Marxian thinkers divided the world into the owners/capitalists, and those who must sell their labor, the proletariat. This rested on the creation of the idea of “private property”. Private property is a right that allows one person to exclude another person from using a piece of land or an object.

Intellectual property, which is still contested and not as established as private property, is the extension of property rights onto inventions and written works and recorded performances. Intellectual property has been undergoing a period of expansion. Early in this century, copyrights expired after the deaths of the authors, and patents lasted 17 years. Today, copyrights seem to be extended indefinitely if the owner wishes. Patents seem to be issued more freely, creating a situation where many similar ideas are covered by an unexpired patent.

The problem with intellectual property is that, if you accept that ideas can become property, it means that the owner of the property can exclude everyone else from using the property. That is – the owner of the idea can prevent anyone else from using that idea.

Intellectual property is a restriction on thought itself.

Copyright is a restriction on copying, and Swartz violated JSTOR's copyrights by duplicating the journal articles. In the end, however, JSTOR decided not to sue Swartz for copying the data. Instead, Swartz was arrested by the State of NY on criminal charges for breaking into a network closet and copying files.

There's a larger issue, though, and that is the existence of JSTOR and other for-profit publishers of academic journals.

To get an idea of what's going on in academic publishing, I suggest reading “Crisis in Scientific Publishing” by Donald Knuth. Knuth is considered to be one of the fathers of computer science, and he is an editor of several journals. In this long letter, he complains about the rising cost of journal subscriptions, a problem that has increased after journals were purchased by for-profit publishing companies.

According to Knuth and others, the price of journals should be dropping, not rising, due to increased automation. The material conditions have changed, yet, these traditional book publishers are raising prices, even as they use electronic delivery.

Knuth then makes an argument for elimination of fees for access to academic articles. He also presents other possible business models, and then requests that the editors of his journal vote on what type of journal they wish to be – one still published by a for-profit company, or some other type of journal.

Within this letter, we see the central conflict between two groups. On the one side we have the intellectual workers – the people who produce knowledge. On the other side, we have businesses that derive a profit from the labor of the intellectual workers.

In the past, the intellectuals were considered partners with the propertied class – and called “petit-bourgeois”, and in some Communist countries, suffered greatly for it. Intellectuals were tortured or executed by many Communists Parties.

That's not to say that Communists were anti-intellectual. Rather the situation was such that nearly all intellectuals were allied with the bourgeois simply because intellectual labor was employed by the wealthy.

Today, this isn't the case. Intellectual labor can be anything from a rapper writing lyrics to what Knuth does. Intellectual labor has become proletarianized; it's widespread,. In some situations, it remains an elite labor, but in more situations, it's increasingly paid less and less for the same work.

In many situations, the labor is entirely unpaid – like when people upload photos to Flickr or Facebook. That labor is becoming part of a system that helps these companies make money.

We can only speculate on Aaron Swartz' impulse, breakin, and duplication of the documents. He wanted to publish them on the internet. Whatever his reasons, they clearly fit into this framework of a kind of class conflict between the proletarianized intellectual worker, and the companies which are privatizing the journals, and expanding the range of intellectual property. The fact the State is trying to send him to prison for this break-in only reinforces that the capitalist state is the partner-thug to the companies that are expanding intellectual property.

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