Aaron Swartz killed himself and a large part of the internet is mourning. Everyone from Cory Doctorow to Lawrence Lessig to Tim Berners-Lee is shocked. If you don’t know who he was, I suggest either this article on Kafila (especially for Indian readers) or the tribute that appeared in The Economist.
In summary, Aaron was an advocate of open source, copyleft, free knowledge and public access to information. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto that he wrote in 2008 is a succinct summary of his philosophy of knowledge. He fought structures – political and social – that stood against what he firmly believed in. Often, those that he went up against were powerful people, and his means of dissent were not necessarily legal. This landed him in trouble and there were many a near-miss. I shall not speculate about what drove him to suicide; enough people have done that already. As someone who’s had a friend who took his own life, I’ve come to realise that such speculation leads to naught but pain and frustration.
I’m more interested in knowing what you and I can do to take his legacy forward. I think it begins with educating ourselves about why this fight matters. I’ve already written about free software and culture, and open access. It is eerily elegant how things are vastly different as Wikipedia, free software, Linux, open access publication, Creative Commons, GNU GPL, right to information, copyright, DRM, law, politics and governance are all tied together by the same thread of philosophy. All it takes to see the connection is dedicated time to read. If you have the interest, just dive in wherever you can (the free culture post has links at the bottom of the page). The rest of the journey will happen on its own.
If you are already aware of these things, then there’s plenty to do:
- Switch to an open source operating system, ditch Windows/MacOS. If you’ve already done so, convince someone else.
- Use and shamelessly promote free and open source software.
- Wherever possible, campaign for open access to information. If you are in university, publish in open access journals (convince your professors to do so).
- Licence all your work under a Creative Commons/GNU General Public Licence. Encourage others to do so.
- If you want to express your protest by breaking the law, know the law well. The #pdftribute reaction to Swartz’s death has generated a lot of ‘liberated’ research. If you are still sure of what you are going, then the JSTOR liberator will probably help (you’ll need institutional access to JSTOR).
- If you want to do something within the ambit of law, head over to JSTOR and sign up for the Register & Read programme. You’ll get access to literature from over 1,200 scholarly journals. Download as much as you can, encourage friends to do so. Circulate everything you downloaded under fair use terms.
- Know that there is intrinsic value in what you are doing. Be unabashedly unapologetic about your stand and engage with anyone who cares to listen. Read, react, recruit.
Law is not always justice. Law changes and it has to be changed for the better. Contribute to that end. If you can think of newer ways to take this forward, share them with the world. There is no better way to honour a man’s life than to take his work forward.