intellectual property rights

Owning the Future

Vernon Bowman speaks outside the Supreme Court following arguments against Monsanto.

IF THEY HAD met, Aaron Swartz and Vernon Bowman probably wouldn't have hit it off. The 26-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. computer whiz and the 75-year-old Indiana grain farmer might have been from different planets. But they were brothers-in-arms in a historic struggle over the shape of the 21st century economy and culture. Each, in his own way, has challenged the iron, unyielding hegemony of copyright law that increasingly protects permanent, private, for-profit ownership of artistic creations, scholarly research, and the very processes of life itself.

Aaron Swartz won't be around to see the outcome of this struggle.

Swartz was a successful internet innovator who used his wealth and position to promote "free information." In 2008, he wrote a program that was used to liberate thousands of public-domain federal court records from a site that was charging 10 cents per page for their use. More recently he used his access to the M.I.T. computer network to execute a massive robo-download of millions of scholarly articles from the subscription database JSTOR. The idea was to make the scholarship available free.

After he was caught, JSTOR reached a civil settlement with Swartz that included his surrender of the hard drives containing the articles and then treated the case as closed. But federal prosecutors decided to throw the book at Swartz. He was under a felony indictment for computer fraud and facing a possible 35-year prison sentence. Finally, in January, Swartz, who had a history of depression, killed himself. His parents blamed overzealous prosecutors for his death.

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