Swartz Suicide Puts JSTOR Academic Database In Spotlight

Death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz renews debate over online content and copyright.

Ellis Booker, Technology Journalist

January 15, 2013

3 Min Read

Computer prodigy and Internet activist Aaron Swartz's suicide last week brought the spotlight on one of his download targets, the digital academic library JSTOR, and quickly drew comments from partisans on either side of the content and copyright debate.

Swartz, a Stanford University dropout, was just 14 when he helped write the RSS specification and created the initial version of web.py, a Python-based framework that is used by a number of Web aggregation sites. He helped design the Creative Commons licenses, a popular legal infrastructure between copyright owners and licensees for distributing information. And he was part of popular news aggregation site Reddit, after his wiki platform Infogami merged with it in November 2005.

Swartz's activism included founding of the progressive political site Demand Progress, and he led opposition to SOPA, a proposed anti-piracy act that the U.S. Congress dropped in 2012 amid an Internet outcry.

JSTOR is a digital library of more than 1,600 academic journals, 15,000 books, and 2 million primary source objects, according to the non-profit's FAQ.

[ Here is another issue raised by the death of Aaron Swartz. Read The Crying Need To Punish Cyber Crime Fairly. ]

The charges against Swartz, announced in July 2011 by the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office, allege in part that he hardwired a laptop into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on-campus network in 2010 to download nearly 5 million academic journal articles from JSTOR.

JSTOR issued a statement on Sunday: "We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz ... He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the Web from which we all benefit."

The statement goes on to say JSTOR "regretted being drawn into [the case] from the outset, since JSTOR's mission is to foster widespread access to the world's body of scholarly knowledge," and notes the service had dropped its civil charges against Swartz in June 2011, once he had returned the JSTOR data he had in his possession.

Swartz, 26, who pled not guilty to the charges, faced 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines, according to press reports. His federal computer fraud trial on 13 felony counts was to begin April 1. (On Monday the Department of Justice dropped its charges against Swartz, a standard practice if a defendant dies before trial.)

Many of the social media posts offering condolences to Swartz's friends and family morphed into discussions about his larger mission, promoting the free dissemination of information.

One of the better defenses of Swartz came from Alex Stamos, CTO of Artemis Internet. Stamos was to be an expert witness at Swartz's April trial. "I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron's downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail," Stamos wrote in a lengthy blog post.

Academics who supported Swartz's mission turned to social media itself, posting links to their research articles on the Web and using the hashtag: #pdftribute. Hacktivist group Anonymous also registered its support, defacing MIT's website and calling for reform of computer crime and intellectual property laws.

Coincidentally last week, just days before Swartz's suicide, JSTOR opened some of its archives to free reading by the public.

"This is part of a major expansion of JSTOR's experimental program Register & Read, in which people can sign up for a JSTOR account and, every two weeks, read up to three articles online for free," JSTOR said in a statement.

Since 2011, journal content published prior to 1923 in the United States and 1870 elsewhere has been free to the public at JSTOR.

Some 1,200 journals, representing 4.5 million articles, are part of the open archive; registered users can read three articles free every two weeks. In addition, about 40% of the articles are available for download with a fee, JSTOR said.

About the Author(s)

Ellis Booker

Technology Journalist

Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was responsible for creating its weekly Internet Page. Most recently, he was editor-in-chief of Crain Communication Inc.’s BtoB, the only magazine devoted to covering the intersection of business strategy and business marketing. He ran BtoB, as well as its sister title Media Business, for a decade. He is based in Evanston, Ill.

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