It has been a couple of weeks since Aaron Swartz died, and I have given his circumstances some thought. What a needless tragedy.
My understanding is that Aaron committed suicide as he faced almost certain imprisonment for posting academic journal articles outside of publishers paywalls. Articles that the producers of the knowledge gave away to corporate interests (in most cases) or large money hungry charities (learned societies etc.) for them to package, distribute, and then make obscene profits on as they sold them back to the academics who wrote them. Aaron Swartz moved some of that material out into the open, and was being prosecuted, to the fullest extent of the law, by the corporate interests who make the money.
When I was an undergraduate, I was working, one summer, in the lab of an academic at the University of Lethbridge, John Vokey. John had done some research into backward masking in musical recordings. As expected, he found that backward masking has no effect on people whatsoever – in spite of what popular culture would have you believe. He was called as an expert witness during the trial of a rock band that was being sued after two teenagers committed suicide after listening to a song being played over and over. The litigants wanted to sue the band on the grounds that the backward masking was a contributing factor in the deaths of the two young boys. The rock band didn’t end up being found guilty (but for the wrong reasons – and I can’t exactly remember what the reasons were). Anyway, I asked John how much being an expert witness in a case like that was worth. He then said something that has shaped my thinking ever since. He said that he hadn’t received anything, refusing payment on the grounds that he had already been paid by society to pursue the knowledge in the first place, and so he felt that it was morally wrong to be paid again, by members of society, for something that he had already been paid for.
That thinking has shaped my approach to the ownership of things that I produce here at the University. I am being paid to produce things, and I can see no moral justification for me withholding what I produce from others. I believe that creative commons copyright protection that ensures I receive attributional rights to my work is enough. I oppose the use of my work being used by others for commercial gain, but have no fear of losing something by having others use it. No one can steal my ideas, because they will always be my ideas. I have avoided publishing in commercial journals as much as possible, and that has had a detrimental effect on my career, but I still have a job that pays me well enough to pursue my interests, and that is enough.
The resources that I produce for learning are open and available to others to use.
Aaron Swartz need not have died in vain. All of us can open up our resources to others. We can stop using commercial, or fat charities for publication and seek other avenues. We can build models that allow for free use and distribution without the threat of piracy hanging over our heads.
The question really is, does anyone care enough?