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In Memory of Aaron Swartz: Copyright, Theft and Profit

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Message Shreesha Udupa


"There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture."

- Aaron Swartz

In the memorial service, Aaron's partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman was demanding the audience gathered there for a self-introspection: she was asking "if you're in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you really believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?" She was rephrasing what Swartz had told while addressing a gathering at Washington DC in last May explaining how the resistance against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) was carried on: he said,  "new technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out our fundamental rights we'd always taken for granted" (How We Stopped SOPA May 2012). He confesses initially in his keynote address about how he had failed to sense the seriousness of the issue when his friend Peter was telling him about such an act and demanding that it needs to be opposed: his first reaction was: why should I waste my life fighting for such a little issue like copyright when several grave matters concerning life and health are already there. But then he gives a second thought, rethinks further and reformulates the issue: rather being a mere copyright related issue from which one can move forward, it was a bill that was fundamentally regulating the right to connect. He was realizing how in the arena of technology the fundamental rights and the civilian freedoms are being snuffed out without even hinting that such a modification is taking place which would alter the life across the world.

Swartz was invoking the grand tradition of civil disobedience in order to counter the challenge of technocapitalism which is claiming its ownership over knowledge and creativity produced and cumulated from innumerable nodes of being. He was not just proposing and advocating a resistance but was actually performing it: in his own terms, he was "liberating the information (that had been) locked up" (Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, July 2008).

Locking up the knowledge into secured archives with special privileged access is an enterprise generating huge profit: confreres of technocapitalism are gearing up with immense interest to tap it as much as they can by bringing up technological as well as legal barricades. As Swartz had identified, "The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage ... is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations" (Manifesto). It is a worldwide phenomenon, one being recently reported from India as well. Three publishers- Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Routledge had sued a petty photocopy shop and the Ratan Tata Library under Delhi University for issuing course packs for its students. Course packs are the sets of photocopied materials consisting of book chapters, journal articles, orders and such academic materials prescribed in the syllabus of a specific course in a particular semester. Section 52 of the Indian Copy Right Act clearly provides that "certain acts [should] not be [considered as] infringement of copyright" and lists out the cases- those for "private use, including research" (52 (i)) and "the reproduction of any work- i. by a teacher or pupil in the course of instruction" (52 (h) (i)). Despite this provision the publishers could get an order from the Delhi High Court to stop the system of course packs. The clever terminological moves made by publishers by equating photocopies of reading materials of a course in a university with pirate copies in order to invoke copyright laws is symptomatic: the court mentions the publishers arguing that the photocopy center "in a most unauthorized and illegal manner is reproducing and issuing the publications of the plaintiffs publications, by bringing out a compilation called as "Course Pack'" (CS(OS) 2439/2012 High Court of Delhi, p. 2).  Further it refers the "Course Packs" as the "infringing/pirated copies" so that the act of photocopying the course readings gets placed as the act of piracy. University from its founding moments is an institution for production and dispersal of knowledge, and here two of the reputed university presses have become agents of market seeking inflated compensation for damages of six million rupees. When the rules of the game are altered in technocapitalism, what was perfectly legal becomes illegal, what was being carried out outside the discourse of legality becomes a prohibited and sinful act. Altered legal discourses attempt to dictate the notions of ethics and morality in terms of profit. In the new vocabulary such an act is "called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral -- it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy" (Manifesto).

Doc Searls who had met Swartz for the first time when he was twelve tries to elaborate the things using the computing metaphor: he identifies two spaces: kernel space and user space. Techies tend to avoid the user space and will limit their work to the kernel space: kernel space defines the limits and pays them their salary: It is a mammoth machine out there regulating the technology for its own needs is converting the kernel space into user space on which techies think they don't have any say: what Aaron challenging was the fundamental ethics that operated at this conversion: he was actively participating in the kernel space, yet he thought that it is his responsibility to see how kernel space becomes a user space and how the rules of the games were altered. Profit is in the kernel space as well as (and much more) in the conversion while politics, the question of justice is in user space. There are codes that regulate, archive and preserve the systemic structure of the kernel space which are variously being called copy right laws, intellectual property rights or patent laws. There is a frame of market which converts the kernel space into user space generating profit. This product of this particular conversion dictates the codes regulating how kernel space is formed and how user space is put into use. When the former or the later proposes any alterations in the rules of the game of this conversion, it is strictly being resisted and any effort in that direction is rendered as cyber crime, theft, even terrorism. The last option is not an imaginative possibility, for one can see its rhetoric was being invoked by the US Attorney who was massively overcharging in Aaron's case where he was being haunted by a possibility of 35 years of sentence.

It was the state machinery which was overenthusiastic in fixing Aaron and making a cyber-terrorist of him. Neither Jstor, from which Aaron had downloaded files, nor MIT, which is known for its legacy of support for open sources, where they were downloaded, were pushing the case further. Given the legacy of MIT, its administrators' decision to involve the Federal law enforcement in the case should make the concerned to remember the ideals for which the institute had stood for: the decision was the crime against the institutional ethics and integrity. Fundamentally Aaron's death was not a suicide; it was a state killing: killing needn't mean merely stabbing; making one's life unlivable is also an act of killing.

There is a story that Bernard Stiegler retells in the first volume of Technics and Time: it is a pre-Platonic tragic Greek myth recounted in Plato's Protagoras. It tells how, when it was decided to create living creatures, Gods charged Prometheus and Epimetheus with the task of equipping them and allotting suitable powers (dunameis) to each species. Epimetheus, which means "forgetfulness", "thinking backward", "hindsight", "reflection" (and Heidegger reminds that "memory thinks back to what is thought", where by this backward movement- reflection, being central to thinking), requests Prometheus to allow him to carry on the task himself and says, "when I have done it, you can review it". To each species he gave qualities to balance out the interplay of the species; but when at last he came to the human, Epimetheus found that he had forgotten to reserve any dunameis: the day had come when man too had to emerge from within the earth. Therefore Prometheus, being at a loss to provide any means of survival for man due the fault that had been committed, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts together with fire and bestowed them on man. This skill, tekhne", technic, consequently elaborated into technology, constitutes the human. It is here the zootechnological relation of man to matter emerges. So to be human is to inherit the fault of Epimetheus (and of Prometheus as well- an originary double fault- of forgetting and of stealing, which Stiegler calls as a default of origin: "there will have been nothing at the origin but the fault, a fault that is nothing but the de-fault of origin or the origin as de-fault") and to be inextricably bound to technics.

With technology fundamentally constituting the human through a convergence of promethean and epimethean moments- of foresights and hindsights, its prohibition is a de-humanising act by itself. One should be aware of the attempts to snuff out one's fundamental right to live as a human being. Swartz was one of those activists who were creating such awareness and resisting such attempts.


Steigler, Bernard. Technics and Time-1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. California: Stanford UP, 1998.

Swartz, Aaron. Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Italy: July 2008,  accessed on 24 Jan 2013.

Swartz, Aaron. How We Stopped SOPA. Washington DC: May 2012,  accessed on 24 Jan 2013

The Chancellor, Master and Scholars of the University of Oxford and others Vs. Rameshwari Photocopy Services and ANR. No CS(OS) 2439/2012. High Court of Delhi, 14 August 2012.

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Shreesha Udupa is a writer, researcher who lives in Mangalore, India. He is currently a research student at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India.
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