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Aaron Swartz’s Tragic Battle With Copyright

Aaron H. Swartz, one of our our most vigorous champions of open access and copyright reform, committed suicide in New York City on Friday at the age of 26. 

He was a pioneer and a renegade, part of the team that built Reddit as well as the widely-used RSS protocol. But he first began making headlines for a coding exploit that he undertook in September of 2010, when he used MIT’s servers to scrape and download some two million academic articles stored by the online catalog JSTOR using a program named keepgrabbing.py. Per copyright law, it may have been illegal or, as some argue, “inconsiderate”: these articles were meant only to be available to MIT affiliates, not to the wider world that Swartz believed deserved better access to the world’s information. 

MIT didn’t press charges and neither did JSTOR. The government, however, decided to throw the book at Swartz, eventually hitting him with 13 separate charges and threatening to send him to prison for decades. According to his mother, Swartz was depressed about the court case and possibility of years in prison. He’d contemplated suicide in the past and, for unknown reasons, followed through this time.

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– by Leandro Oliva and Adam Clark Estes

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