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The AALL Spectrum® blog is published by the American Association of Law Libraries. Submissions from AALL members and other members of the legal community are highly encouraged. Opinions and editorial views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of AALL. AALL does not assume any responsibility for statements advanced by contributors. Previously, the AALL Spectrum Blog was located at aallspectrum.wordpress.com.

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1/28/2013 1:52:07 AM

What Law Librarians Should Know About Aaron Swartz

On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz, 26, died in an apparent suicide.  Swartz was described in 
news reports as a programmer, a hacker, an internet activist, and an information activist.  As far as I know, there is no indication that Swartz suggested why he was committing suicide; but members of Swartz's family assert that a federal prosecution for alleged computer crimes contributed to Swartz's death.  It's conceivable that chronic illnesses played a role.

At the funeral for Swartz on January 15, speakers included Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor known for writings on copyright and internet freedom.  Many people who knew Swartz or knew about him have commented on his life and death; several organizations related to Swartz have issued statements.  WikiLeaks has claimed a connection to Swartz, while Anonymous has hacked websites in retaliation to the prosecution against him.  Some commentators are concerned that a "canonization" of Swartz is occurring, with potential for misuse of what he did and stood for.

It's tricky to summarize Aaron Swartz and his significance.  Swartz was involved in an extraordinary number of technical and activist projects; an account of his life could easily fill a long book.  This article is a brief overview of the projects and controversies that, in my view, are most relevant to the work of law librarians or people involved in law or libraries generally.  (If you're interested in learning more, I will be creating a collection of links to materials by and about Swartz.)

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In 2000, at age 14, Swartz co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, one of three RSS versions in common use today.  RSS is a way for blogs and other websites to syndicate content.  Sites can provide links to RSS -- or, alternatively, Atom -- feeds, to which users may subscribe.  Subscribers can review feeds in a news reader such as Google Reader or Pulse News.  If you don't already subscribe to feeds from legal, library, or other websites, you might want to try it for a quick view of the day's news and commentary.  

Creative Commons

Swartz was an early advisor to Creative Commonshelping to design the code for its licenses and to promote its goals.  Creative Commons provides licenses that allow sharing and use of creative work, whether in the public domain or with some rights reserved.  Several websites, including Google and Wikimedia, offer Creative Commons search engines, which you can use to find materials to reuse on your own site.


In 2005, Swartz created a wiki site, Infogami, which soon merged with another startup, Reddit.  Swartz was a programmer for Reddit and left (as a rich man) soon after Conde Nast bought the company.  Reddit calls itself the "front page of the internet."  It allows users to post links and comments in various areas of interest (known as "subreddits") and to vote up or down for any story or comment.  Reddit also lets anyone hold an "IAmA" ("I am a ...") aka "AMA" in which users can "ask me anything."   Law librarians may want to look at the subreddits on law, libraries, and technology, and also search for interesting AMAs.


Swartz was an active editor on Wikipedia.  In 2006, he was a candidate for the Wikipedia Foundation Board of Trustees and wrote several pieces about Wikipedia.  One piece was "Who Writes Wikipedia," which challenged the view that only a small set of people wrote most of Wikipedia's content.  I presume that most librarians are familiar with Wikipedia, whether as a research tool or as a frequently -- whether appropriately or otherwise -- cited resource in student papers, judicial opinions, and other documents.

Open Library

Swartz was the architect of Open Library, a project of the Internet Archive.  The goal of Open Library is to create a web page for every book ever published.  The site now has millions of records, some accompanied by ebooks for download or borrowing.  Swartz apparently obtained all of the Library of Congress's bibliographic data in 2006, and posted this data -- for which the Library of Congress normally charged fees -- in Open Library.

PACER controversy

In 2008, computers at the Library for the U.S. Courts of the Seventh Circuit in Chicago provided free access to PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which normally cost eight cents per page.  Swartz loaded a script onto a library computer, which automatically downloaded PACER records every three seconds and uploaded them to a cloud server.  Over a couple of weeks, he downloaded about 20% of the PACER database.  Swartz provided the PACER documents to Public.Resource.Org.  The FBI's  investigation of this incident eventually ended without charges.  Swartz continued to promote free public access to PACER documents by working with RECAP and PlainSite.

JSTOR controversy

As a research fellow at Harvard in 2010 and early 2011, Swartz had access to JSTOR, a repository of academic materials.  According to a federal indictment in July 2011, Swartz downloaded a large number of articles on MIT's computer network.  When MIT blocked Swartz's computer from accessing the network, he put a laptop in a closet at MIT and continued downloading articles.  Soon after the source of the downloading was discovered, Swartz was arrested.  Swartz gave the downloaded documents back to JSTOR, which decided not to press legal claims against Swartz.  (A few days before Swartz's death, JSTOR made many articles more open to non-subscribers through its "Register & Read" program.)  MIT settled its civil claims but also turned over evidence to the U.S. Secret Service.  Swartz was indicted for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.  Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison -- or perhaps more under a September 2012 superseding indictment -- though U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz stated that her office offered a plea deal in which the prosecution would recommend 6 months in prison.  Some friends of Swartz say that he didn't want to plead guilty and then be known as a "felon."  Following Swartz's suicide, some members of Congress criticized the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department for their handling of the case.  Rep. Zoe Lofgren has introduced "Aaron's Law" to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Whatever the results of congressional or other governmental action, the Swartz prosecution will likely be a subject of law journal articles and other legal commentary for years to come, on issues such as prosecutorial discretion and the definition of computer crimes.

Demand Progress

Swartz founded Demand Progress, which opposed the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act) bills.  The legislation would have given the U.S. government and copyright holders ways to stop websites from dealing in infringing materials.  There was debate about what exactly the legislation would do; but groups such as Demand Progress as well as corporations and websites such as Google were successful in contending that these laws would cause entire websites to be taken down for minor alleged infringements of copyright.  (You may recall that Wikipedia and other sites went dark for a day of protest against the legislation.)  Congressional action on the bills was postponed in early 2012.  But with the U.S. government and other governments still grappling with how to deal with copyright infringement and other perceived problems of the internet, one can be sure that the debate over SOPA and PIPA will echo in future policy and legal arguments.


Swartz contributed to the development of Markdown, which is a way to write readable plain text that can be converted to HTML.  Swartz also developed HTML2Text, which works in the opposite direction, converting HTML web pages to Markdown text.  You might find these tools handy in creating your own web pages.  Also, if you use Twitter and want to view tweets in context, you might try the Twitter Viewer created by Swartz.

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As you can see, Aaron Swartz was very interested in information and how people can access and use it.  He worked to make books, academic articles, and legal documents more available, and to foster freedom on the internet.  I think that these interests gave him much in common with law librarians.  Of course, some librarians would disagree with particular positions or actions that Swartz took.  Few would go as far as Swartz did to further access to information, which led to federal investigation and prosecution.  A librarian might reasonably be nervous about allowing someone like Swartz to use the library's computers!  Nevertheless, I think that law librarians can take inspiration from Swartz's goals of information access and internet freedom, and his willingness to work for them.

Scott Frey
Reference Librarian
Western State College of Law

Posted By Scott Frey at 1/28/2013 1:52:07 AM  0 Comments