There is a saying: Bad legal cases make bad laws. A corollary might be: Don’t base laws on whether the accused kills him or herself. It is tragic that Aaron Swartz, well-known Internet activist, committed suicide when faced with the prospect of serving time if convicted of various charges related to his allegedly breaking into MIT’s network to download millions of JSTOR’s academic articles without paying for them. But this tragic ending should not be the only lens through which the incident is viewed.
Since Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book or since Robin Hood rode with his band of merry men, we have championed stealing for a cause. But society should be careful about excusing theft too easily.
When someone spends years developing expertise or doing an experiment or creating fictional characters, then puts that effort on paper and gives one publisher an exclusive right to publish and sell it, that is a product of their labor and as much a piece of property as a house and as much their creation as the Mona Lisa.
I’ve often wished I had free or more affordable access to high-priced articles for my research. It never crossed my mind that that meant I had the right to steal them any more than I thought I had the right to steal a Coach purse because it was more expensive than I believed a pocketbook should be.
And if one thinks there are more fundamental societal principles that justify trying to have this information more widely and freely disseminated, well, there are other ways to change society. If you think academic or scientific papers should be free, convince the authors to publish them in a nonrestricted forum as some people are doing or convince the universities and other institutions that run these journals to fund them some other way.
It’s not just about publishing, however. It’s about this idea that you don’t have to value the owner’s rights. Long before the Internet, people rationalized stealing things they thought were overpriced, like cable TV services. But since the Internet, this idea that information wants to be free has become a rallying cry to justify the theft of other people’s intellectual property, ranging from the downloading of bootleg music and movies to the theft and redistribution of academic journals.
Not all thefts are equal, to be sure, and proportionality in prosecutions is one important lesson from this tragedy, but not the only one.
The Internet is a marvel, and it has changed nearly everything. But it does not change the basic fact that each person has the right to decide what to do with his or her own property. So if someone takes that property without the owner’s or the custodian’s permission, whether physically or through the Internet, they have stolen it. And the thief should not be surprised if there are consequences.