The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet, by Justin Peters

Justin Peters’ new book gives a detailed account of the rise of the free culture movement, with the late computer prodigy Aaron Swartz as its nucleus.

In January 2013, 26-year-old computer prodigy Aaron Swartz committed suicide. At the time, he was under indictment by the US government for unauthorized downloading of millions of academic articles and was facing prison time. But the story of what led the cofounder of open-source website Creative Commons and an early developer of social networking website Reddit to this point is not so cut and dried. And it’s a story that’s much bigger than Swartz. 

To give context, The Idealist starts off as a history of copyrights. This may not sound riveting, but author Justin Peters offers several engaging nuggets including this one: because foreign writers had no rights in the colonial US (the small number of domestic writers had only a few), anyone who had the means to print and distribute his or her works could make money from them, and many took full advantage. But those days didn’t last. When the first US federal copyright statute was passed in 1790, thanks in part to lobbying by a very persistent Noah Webster (yes, that Webster), authors could hold rights for a 14-year term, renewable once. 

Fast-forward 200 years, and there’s a sense of déjà vu. The Internet of the early ’90s was the Wild West; it was an open landscape in which people could freely exchange all types of information, while the creators had no power to stop it. After the establishment of digital copyright laws in the late ’90s, however, most of that landscape was fenced off. 

Copyright laws became the legal lasso with which rights holders could rein in rampant online theft and make responsible parties pay. One of the first and most famous cases of how strongly companies flexed their legal muscle in the new digital age was the case against Napster, the 1990s peer-to-peer file-sharing program that allowed anyone to download copyrighted music for free. When the program’s popularity soared and CD sales dropped, the recording industry went after Napster’s creators, and even individual downloaders, in court. The strategy worked: the recording industry’s rights were upheld, Napster — once as well-known as McDonald’s — faded and was bought out and widespread illegal downloading was over. It was the end of an era. 

The legal defeat of Napster simultaneously signalled a heightened level of protection and introduced a new revenue stream in every industry imaginable. Not only artists and writers protected their works, but corporations and governments also began limiting online access to their properties through copyrights and subscription paywalls. Even academic institutions and publishers started charging exorbitant fees for access to documents. Now more than ever, knowledge was for sale, and the price was high. 

This raised Swartz’s ire. He’d heard firsthand that educators in developing countries with limited resources lacked access to information that was attainable in wealthier countries. Information should be available to everyone, he thought, not only to the privileged few who had the means to pay for it. In 2010, ignoring the warnings of another free culture activist, Swartz downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from JSTOR, an online database of academic journal articles. The feds, who had already been keeping an eye on Swartz after an earlier incident, took notice. Despite Swartz’s efforts to conceal his identity, the activity was traced to him and in 2011 he was charged. Whether or not the indictment led to Swartz’s suicide is a question that may never be answered. 

Peters spins a wonderful yarn of the actions, philosophies and guerrilla strategies used by the free culture movement to garner open access to information, with Swartz as its nucleus. Part biography, part history, part examination, it shows us how the ideals of the free culture movement affected copyright laws and individual behaviour. With the public domain shrinking, The Idealist raises the question: given the history of copyrights, should access to information be free?