More on the sad Aaron Swartz Case

After Aaron Swartz committed suicide a few months ago the uproar led MIT to commission an internal inquiry. It released its findings a couple of days ago (in and around the controversy swirling around the NSA and its various programs). While they conclude that MIT didn’t actually do anything wrong, they suggest that they might have acted differently:

Larry Lessig suggests that MIT is ducking its actual responsibilities:

JSTOR (the source of the data that Swartz was downloading and ‘freeing’ also had a statement:

A couple of months ago Techdirt discovered that the prosecution of Swartz was likely politically motivated, incidentally:

More on the tragedy of Aaron Swartz

Yesterday I wrote about the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, who was being prosecuted by the feds for publishing articles he downloaded from JStor,  even though JStor declined to press charges.

Just found out that he was one of the leaders of the movement to oppose SOPA, the ‘Stop Online Privacy Act’ that I blogged about earlier. Below is a link to a brilliant talk he gave in June about his role in this fight. I don’t agree with all his political asides, but generally he was right on, as far as I’m concerned. It’s about 25 minutes long, but you can run it in the background, as it doesn’t have any graphics–just a talking head.

Sad story with some interesting philosophical and political undercurrents

A well-known hacker and programmer, Aaron Swartz (26), committed suicide Friday, and set off a firestorm of discussion. He was famous partly for being involved with the development of RSS and Reddit, but achieved notoriety when he hacked into MIT’s JSTOR account and downloaded tons of journal articles, and ‘set them free’. After he was caught (and he didn’t try to hide it very well), JSTOR declined to prosecute, and it’s not totally clear what MIT did (in fact, over the weekend the President of MIT launched an investigation to find out). Meanwhile, the federal prosecutor threw the book at him, threatening him with 35 years (!) in jail and millions of dollars in fines.

You can read lots about it in the article in Inside Higher Ed, and also read commentaries by folks whose work I read frequently, including Larry Lessig, Cory Doctorow and James Fallows. There’s more on

Added Jan. 15: more coverage of the fallout.


A ‘Fair Use’ Victory

Over the past couple of years there has been a major legal debate between organizations representing authors and publishers on the one hand, and a couple of major Internet entities–Google and the Hathi Trust.

The Hathi Trust, based at Michigan, is a coalition of a number of large universities. Its mission is ‘to contribute to the common good by collecting, organizing, preserving, communicating, and sharing the record of human knowledge.’ and its goals include:

  • To build a reliable and increasingly comprehensive digital archive of library materials converted from print that is co-owned and managed by a number of academic institutions.
  • To dramatically improve access to these materials in ways that, first and foremost, meet the needs of the co-owning institutions.
  • To help preserve these important human records by creating reliable and accessible electronic representations.

Essentially, Google helped Michigan and the other universities virtually scan all the books in their libraries in order to make them searchable and store their contents electronically. The idea was to make the books accessible to visually impaired students, and to allow researchers to search the entire corpus of texts. Linguists, for example, search written texts for early uses of particular words, or when studying grammatical constructions. Needless to say, such research would be impossible if it was necessary to read through every book in the U of M Library to find instances of the word there used as a subject of verbs other than be, appear, and seem (this happens to have been part of my dissertation research). And, of course, my doing that research would not have had any effect on the sales of the physics texts, novels and encyclopedias of fungi that are located in the library and were scanned. But the Authors’ Guild argued that this scanning reduced their sales and deprived them of income.

Last week U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. (Southern District of New York) ruled that this scanning constituted ‘fair use’ of copyrighted material, and threw the Authors’ Guild suit out. He wrote ‘I cannot imagine a definition of fair use that would not encompass the transformative uses made by Defendants’ MDP [mass digitization project] and would require that I terminate this invaluable contribution to the progress of science and cultivation of the arts that at the same time effectuates the ideals espoused by the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].’ (The whole decision is available here.)

The notion of ‘transformative use’ is crucial in permitting use of copyrighted material without permission. It is what allows parodies, criticism, and now, crucially, linguistic and sociological research. It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if a book review required the author’s permission to quote from the book being reviewed.

And, as was pointed out in Inside Higher Ed, this is the third major copyright case that universities and scholars have won. You may recall from a year or so ago that some major textbook publishers sued the University of Georgia for putting too much material into online coursepacks (inside Blackboard, incidentally). The judge in that case threw out most of the Association of American Publishers and the Copyright Clearance Center’s lawsuit also. And finally, a group representing documentary film makers failed in a lawsuit against UCLA.

Ultimately I think the major ‘take-away’ is that when scholars use copyrighted material in their research and teaching they are not ‘stealing’ it, and their use of it is unlikely to affect royalties going to authors. This makes these cases different from the music and movie industry’s war against ‘unauthorized’ downloading (whatever you think of the morality/legality of those cases).

Who owns your lectures? And the notes someone takes from them?

My colleague Aaron Perzanowski at Wayne’s Law School pointed out that UC Berkeley has made a rather startling pronouncement. In order to protect faculty members’ intellectual property, they have made it illegal to take notes or record lectures without the express permission of the professor (except in the case of students actually enrolled in the class, who may share written notes with classmates, but not sell them to students taking the course next semester). Commercial note-taking and audio/video recording is forbidden without the express permission of the faculty member.

I can understand the motivation (to protect intellectual property), although there’s some question about the ‘transformative’ value of note-taking (transforming ideas raises some ‘fair use’ issues that we’d better leave the lawyers to worry about.)

In any case, here’s the official policy, in case you’d like to read it for yourself. Thoughts? Discussion?

UC Berkeley Note-taking Policy

Here’s some ready-made discussion on the policy:


The PC is Dead. Zittrain says so.

I’ve been linking to lots of stuff lately, but this one I think should stir some comment here. It’s certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest on the web in general. See what you think:

The PC is Dead

Jonathan L. Zittrain (born 24 December 1969) is a US professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School, a professor of computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a faculty co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He works in several intersections of the Internet with law and policy including intellectual property, censorship and filtering for content control and computer security. He founded a project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society that develops classroom tools. (Wikipedia entry).


Yet another reason to write your congressperson

A new bill being considered by the House would essentially give a few trade organizations the power to shut down anything on the web they don’t like. All they have to do is allege that it is storing unauthorized copyrighted material. While I can sympathize with artists who feel they are being ripped off by downloading, the potential for abuse of this law is enormous. More details here (commercial link includes an ad).

Educause, which is the national organization for university IT professionals (both the technical types, like network engineers and CIO’s, as well as those deeply involved in online learning and IT in the classroom), has released a formal response to the latest draft of this particular bill.

The response can be read here: