Introduction to Part I: Free Culture

Benjamin Mako Hill

Seth Schoen

October 20, 2014

This essay was published in “The Boy Who Could Change the World:The Writings of Aaron Swartz” published by New Press in 2015. The book is a posthumous collection of writing by Aaron Swartz. This essay introduces the first section of the book on Aaron's writing about free culture which we helped edit.

Aaron Swartz’s life was shaped by an ethical belief that information should be shared freely and openly. Driven by this principle, Aaron worked extensively as a leader in the “free culture” movement, which is where we met him and worked closely with him for nearly a decade. From his earliest writings, included at the beginning of this section, Aaron was transfixed by the fact that a piece of knowledge, unlike a piece of physical property, can be shared by large groups of people without making anybody poorer. For Aaron the clear implication by creating artificial scarcity in knowledge, culture, or information.

His early writing highlights the diversity of ways in which Aaron approached free culture advocacy. In some situations, he tried to work creatively within the system to reform copyright laws that limited free sharing. For example, Aaron’s early writing about compulsory license schemes and his work with Creative Commons reflect attempts to address the injustice caused by “unfree” culture. We met Aaron through the 2003 Supreme Court oral argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft. At the time, Aaron was outraged that Congress had given in to industry pressures to make copyright last even longer, and he was thrilled to meet other activists working to limit copyright. With the loss in the Eldred case and other legal changes that increased the scope and power of copyright, Aaron was frustrated by the lack of progress in the free culture movement and increasingly adopted a more transgressive approach.

For example, in 2009 Aaron helped lead a project to download and publish public records about court cases that the federal courts charged substantial sums to access through the PACER system. This project spurred a criminal investigation, although he was never charged in the matter. The government’s criminal case against him in the last two years of his life charged that Aaron had similarly downloaded a large number of academic journal articles with the aim of making these articles widely available to the public, regardless of whether they could afford to pay for access. In making its case about Aaron’s motives, the government relied on Aaron’s long history of writing about issues of free culture and open access and showed a particular interest in “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” published in this section, which called for the liberation of academic knowledge that was locked up by commercial publishers.

In other work, Aaron’s commitment to free culture led him to build and design systems to allow its collaborative production. In particular, he was inspired by the free software movement and its demonstration that commitment to an ethic of information sharing could, in practice, open the door to widespread collaboration with enormously valuable results, such as the GNU/Linux operating system and Wikipedia. In fact, Aaron created his own early predecessor to Wikipedia, called The Info Network, and wrote several essays describing other ideas for mass collaboration around other types of free cultural artifacts. Aaron’s start-up Infogami—which merged with Reddit in 2005—was another such platform for collaboration and information sharing. After Aaron’s own collaborative encyclopedia failed to gain traction, he became an early and active participant in Wikipedia. This section includes a series of essay that Aaron wrote in 2006 as part of his campaign to be elected a director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia.

Aaron was committed to free culture in part because he believed that freely shareable knowledge could transform society for the better. In his early writings, he expressed a sense that the mere availability of factual data could be empowering. In 2008, Aaron founded, an organization that attempted to promote increased government transparency by making government data more widely available. Over time, however, Aaron became skeptical of the power of mere transparency, and he began highlighting the need for activism and journalism. This led to his later focus on politics.

Toward the end of his life, Aaron tried to explicitly distance himself from free culture in order to focus on broader issues of injustice, arguing that copyright issues were merely symptomatic of larger problems of power and corruption and could not usefully be dealt with without addressing these larger political problems. Even in these efforts, however, Aaron repeatedly returned to free culture activism. In the speech that closes this section, Aaron describes being called back into the world of free culture to lead the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a proposed U.S. law designed to restrict the Internet in ways that would cut back on the kind of information sharing that Aaron supported. He calls on his listeners to believe that their personal engagement in activism for information freedom is urgently needed and that they can become the “hero of their own story.”