EU VP On Aaron Swartz: If Our Laws Hold Back Benefits From Openness, We Should Change Those Laws

from the still-waiting-for-the-others dept

As Techdirt has reported over the last ten days, the death of Aaron Swartz has provoked an outpouring of grief from friends and colleagues, who understandably wish to express their shock and anger at what happened. You’d expect that. What you might not expect is for a Vice-President of the European Commission to add her voice, but that’s exactly what Neelie Kroes did this week. Her post is short, and worth reading in its entirety:

You’ve probably seen the terrible news about the death of Aaron Swartz. It’s always horrifying when someone so young and so clearly talented feels they have no option but to take their own life. I know that this is something that shook the internet community deeply. And my thoughts are with his family, and what they must be going through right now.

This was a man who saw that greater openness can be good for citizens, and good for society. Hugely disruptive — but hugely beneficial.

For me, the case is particularly clear when there aren’t copyright issues, when information was already paid for by taxpayers, and when more openness can help new innovations and scientific discoveries.

I would never condone unlawful activity. But in my view, if our laws, frameworks and practices stand in the way of us getting all those benefits, then maybe they need to be changed.

Agree or disagree with his methods, Aaron could see the open direction we’re heading in, and its benefits. In the meantime, those scientists who are paying tribute by making their own work legally, openly available aren’t just showing their respects — they are also benefiting scientific progress.

Two points stand out there. First, the one regarding information “already paid for by taxpayers”. That’s a clear reference to the open access and open data movements, which seek to make precisely this kind of material available to all. In fact, the point that openness drives innovation and scientific progress is mentioned by Kroes not just once, but twice in her short post.

The other notable phrase is that “if our laws, frameworks and practices stand in the way of us getting all those benefits [of openness], then maybe they need to be changed”. That’s of a piece with her earlier frank comments about copyright being “a tool to punish and withhold, not a tool to recognise and reward,” and her call for “flexibility in the system, not the straitjacket of a single model.”

Given the stony silence from just about everyone in positions of power regarding Aaron Swartz’s suicide, it’s good that at least one politician had the decency to offer her condolences and admit that there’s something seriously wrong with today’s approach to sharing knowledge. It would be even better if more of her colleagues came to a similar realization and expressed it with equal honesty.

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Comments on “EU VP On Aaron Swartz: If Our Laws Hold Back Benefits From Openness, We Should Change Those Laws”

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DannyB (profile) says:

How would this apply to copyright law? Patent law?

If our laws, practices and frameworks don’t allow us to get the full benefit, they need to be changed?

Since copyright was supposed to be for limited times, and by limited, I believe the founders meant less than infinity, then what kind of changes might be in order?

The purpose is to have a limited time of exclusivity as an incentive to create more.

Similarly with patents, the deal is that you disclose, you get a limited time of exclusivity, and then everyone is allowed to build upon past work. But that time of exclusivity is a time when further innovation of the masses is halted, and further innovation, if any can only be done by the holder of the exclusive right.

So how can the laws be changed to enable us to get the full benefits of human progress and innovation?

For what conceivable reason should copyright be allowed to exist beyond the author’s death? How can the author be any further incentivized after her death? Even if the author’s heirs can continue to give “incentives” to congress critters, how can this benefit the dead author?

Since patents effectively delay faster (or possibly any) innovation, maybe they are not necessary.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Laziness is the father.
Greed and lawyers are the father and mother of patents.

shane (profile) says:

Re: How would this apply to copyright law? Patent law?

If one were to successfully argue that IP has any use at all, I think shortening the terms of coverage is the only real answer. My personal opinion, and I have only the vaguest of arguments for these, are two years for copyright and 6 months to a year for patent. These represent to me the fair turn around time for people who have invested a lot into something to get their money back out of it.

The expense of medical research might argue for a special exception for them, and perhaps some other disciplines as well. What you end up running up against with patents though is that there really is an expense associated with the physical portion of the research, and while I think that would be overcome in a free market, the transition from a patent regulated market to a free one would be bumpy if not well thought out.

And I don’t even know who to go to for information on how a well thought out transition would look.

shane (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How would this apply to copyright law? Patent law?

That’s similar. I too think trademark is a separate issue, and find most “copyleft” people agree. Trademark is more about truth in advertising.

There are parts of tech though that seem to turn around so quickly that 5 years is too long. This gets talked about so little, it is hard to get a solid handle on what would be best.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: How would this apply to copyright law? Patent law?

Although there is a whole lot about copyright that must be fixed in order for it to function properly, I think there is one change that can be made that would eliminate a huge portion of the problems that copyright is causing:

Reinstate the need to register for copyright. If a work isn’t registered, it’s not copyrighted.

Anonymous Coward says:

Perhaps someone would be so kind as to peruse the entirety of the JSTOR “library” and demonstrate that its contents have been “already paid for by the taxpayers”. The person so stating hasn’t a clue what she is talking about. It also bears mentioning as a separate matter she appears to be generally clueless about copyright law, and especially US copyright law.

Some Other AC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While this arguably needs to be done and would be cost intensive, it would be fairly easy to point out the research that was paid for by taxpayers. While the process would be long and tedious, it could be done on a per school/program basis to assist in simplifying.
Is the school a publicly funded University/College?
– Taxpayer funded
Did the school or research program receive state/federal grants?
– Taxpayer funded
Were donations/grants from private entities non-specific in regards to financial ROI(return on investment)?
– Taxpayer(the private entity pays taxes and potentially receives a tax break for the donation) funded.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

JSTOR distributes papers that appear in scholarly journals. The majority of such paper were developed with public funding (and public funding was used to pay the journals to publish the papers). Not all of the papers were paid for entirely with public money, but most of them were, and the rest were paid for with public money in part.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps someone would be so kind as to peruse the entirety of the JSTOR “library” and demonstrate that its contents have been “already paid for by the taxpayers”. The person so stating hasn’t a clue what she is talking about. It also bears mentioning as a separate matter she appears to be generally clueless about copyright law, and especially US copyright law.

Actually your comment shows that you are clueless about the content of JSTOR. As someone who regularly writes the kind of stuff that ends up there let me enlighten you about the process.

1. A scientist or scholar does some research. This may be funded by some grant giving body, by their institution – or by the scientist doing the work in his/her spare time. However it is funded it is always the work that is funded – not the publication as such.

2. This is written up and submitted to a journal or conference. If accepted (after vetting by unpaid volunteer referees) the author is required to assign the copyright to the publisher for nothing.

3.The publisher then does a print run for the journal and distributes copies (mostly at high prices to academic libraries).

4. At that point the publisher retains the copyright but has already covered all his costs (really only the typesetting and printing) because at this stage (in the old world) no one needs to pay again – all the relevant people still have access to the copies.

So to summarise


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

My deepest apology for making a comment at a level more generic than the level of granularity you seem to prefer when reading comments.

Be that as it may, the individual to whom I referred is still clueless on all counts. Perhaps this results, in part, from her residing on the other “side of the pond”, as well as having different experiences and resources from which she has assimilated her expertise.

Anymouse says:

What would Aaron Swarts do? should become the internet version of What would Jesus do?

If you’ve ever attended Sunday school, CCD, or other christian religion ceremonies, you have probably heard the following phrase:

What would Jesus do?

This phrase has been used by religion as a ‘moral guide’ to try and get people to do the right thing.

I propose a new internet meme (because this always works so well) that we start using the following phrase for any technological information sharing or disseminating:

What would Aaron Swartz do?

And since I’m not just a conspiracy theorist, but also an open thinker…..

How do we know Aaron wasn’t the second coming of Jesus?

Jesus took 2 loaves of bread and 2 fish and created enough food to feed the masses… (I’m sure this was some form of copyright infringement, although perhaps as the son of the creator he had the appropriate rights so that he wouldn’t get sued)

Aaron took PACER and JSTOR to feed information to the masses…. And was accused of many crimes he did not do (much like Jesus come to think of it…..)

Jesus allowed himself to die on the cross, effectively committing suicide, in order to spread his message… believe in me and you will have everlasting life, and to prove that he was willing to have his own life taken (knowing that he would live forever in the kingdom of heaven)

Aaron committed suicide, some will argue his thinking, but I feel that he felt it was the only way to get his message out there to the rest of the world. Yes he was freeing information for the masses slowly, but he was also attracting unwanted attention from the powers that be (hmm… much like the ones who hung Jesus on the cross…) and knew that he alone by fighting the made up charges in a legal battle, would not be able to make much of a difference. However by committing suicide, he effectively becomes a Marytr for the freeing of information.

Now I’m not saying that Aaron was the second coming of Christ, I’m just asking, “How would we know if he was?” Religion is based on belief in something that’s not tangible, verifiable, or provable. Believing that information should be free is not a tangible, verifiable or provable fact, it’s a belief and one that Aaron was willing to give his life for. Is his belief any less relevant than individuals belief in their ‘GOD’?

If he was the Second coming, he’s probably sitting up there next to God right now saying, “You were right, I tried again and things just didn’t work out, lets scrap the whole human race thing, it was a fun experiment, but it just didn’t work out.”

Sarcasm… or No?

shane (profile) says:

Re: What would Aaron Swarts do? should become the internet version of What would Jesus do?

I like Aaron. Hell, I adore a lot of the stuff he was all about. But Aaron Swartz was no Jesus Christ, or for that matter no person who made up the story of Jesus Christ if you’re the kind of person that likes to pretend He never existed.

The ignorance of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, which we are constantly encouraged to think of as backwards and barbaric, is staggering. Think doing away with the draft is leftist? Try having an army of all volunteers who, if they happen to just be afraid, are encouraged to go back home.

Think progressive taxes are leftist and counterproductive. Try the redistrinbution of all land every 50 years. Try the forgiveness of all debt every 7.

Yeah, you can finger your way through the Bible and find difficulties. I personally have my own little explanations for most of them, but that is really beside the point. The point is, whether you believe in God or not, the Bible talks about a level of freedom that has yet to materialize on the face of this earth.

Finally, and my deepest sympathies to Aaron and his family, but Jesus didn’t kill himself when the government came for him. He obliged the government to finish the job.

And some say that was the undoing of all of their kind for all eternity.

Daniel Scheinhaus (profile) says:


Many of those involved in this discussion don’t seem to recognize the value of creativity. Nor do they realize that creative people also deserve to make a decent living. When you buy something in a store — food, clothes, hardware of any kind including electronic hardware, do you think you should be paying an amount that only covers the cost of making whatever it is? That doesn’t lead to an income for anyone involved. Many of you have lived in homes payed for by parents who made a living that made it possible to raise you and send you to school. None of that would have been possible without people having payed them for the fruits of their labor. Oddly enough, values have been placed on much that we use for which there once wasn’t enough for everyone. Now we live in a post-industrial society where humans can produce enough of almost everything for everyone, despite our 7 billion population — that goes for food, computers, cars, whatever. There’s only one thing that humans have that isn’t unlimited — creativity. Creativity should be valued more than that other stuff. Yet so many want those who create to give their stuff for nothing or very little while it’s acceptable for others to charge a great deal for stuff we have plenty of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Copyrights

As it has been stated many times on this site. It’s not that we do not value creativity or even want artists to give their work away for free. It’s that the copyright holders most often are not the artists. It’s the legacy gatekeepers that abuse the artists as well as the public that are the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Copyrights

So you acknowledge that creativity couldn’t be done without standing on the shoulders of Giants (our parents who supported us, the schools that taught us)…

Yet you seem to think that ‘new’ creations shouldn’t have to pay or credit those who’s work they are building on.

Nothing new is created in a vaccume, everything we do today, we owe to those who came before us, why should we be able to get rich off of someone else’s work, while expecting nobody else to get rich off of our work?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Copyrights

Many of those involved in this discussion don’t seem to recognize the value of creativity. Nor do they realize that creative people also deserve to make a decent living.

Why in the world would you think this? A lot of people commenting here (including myself) earn their living on their creativity and are completely and personally aware of the value of it.

shane (profile) says:

Re: Copyrights

Yeah, I am casting my vote for you having that backwards as well. Further, those of you who do creative work and go hand in hand with the abusive corporations who are undermining technological progress and threatening people left and right deserve the condemnation of your fellow man for going along with things that are obviously not right.

If your creativity is so rare, then how could it be copied? The argument against you is in the ease with which your supposedly ever so rare creativity is in fact not much different from anything that came before, and that pretty much anyone can learn to do it, let alone push a button or two and make a copy of it.

Want to impress me as an artist? Perform for a living. Get paid for showing up, and don’t get paid when you don’t show up, just like every single solitary other person who doesn’t make their living singing, dancing, making pretty things to look at, or playing pretend.

You are NOT better than the rest of us. That is your hubris talking.

Jasmine Charter (user link) says:

Silence from Positions of Power

I’m not sure why you would expect to hear anything from those in power… after all, they were the trigger pullers.

He was a clear and present danger… and they… well, DEALT with Aaron as only authority figures can…

By having him killed… or driving him to it. That’s always better for them since there’s plausible deniability.

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