“Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing” – Cody Doctorow (from his preface to Little Brother – available as a free e-book here)

Copyleft symbol

Creative Commons was set up to encourage authors to surrender part (but not all) their rights under copyright law so that their work enters the public domain.

A prime mover behind this so-called copyleft movement was the late Aaron Swartz.

I’m ashamed to say that I have only come to realise what an important figure he was since his tragic suicide at the age of 26.

He stood up to enemies of the freedom to connect and one of those who ensured that ill-conceived Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) failed to get on the statute books. He explains this campaign against state censorship in a keynote address at a Washington DC conference.

SOPA and the legal campaigns against Swartz illustrate that there are many powerful groups and individuals who would dearly love to claw back control of the internet from the ordinary people.

The introduction to Cody Doctorow’s novel which I quoted from above contains a passionate argument in favour of what essentially amounts to giving away creative works for free.

Doctorow argues that for the vast majority of writers and musicians, meaning those who aren’t the next Dan Brown or the new Coldplay, the big problem isn’t privacy but obscurity. He writes: “if the choice is between allowing copying or being a frothing bully lashing out at anything he can reach, I choose the former”.

Aaron Swartz – enlightened soul.

This is a divisive issue as can be seen from the reaction to Jairus Khan’s proposed MP3 tribute to Swartz. Khan has asked musicians to license their albums under the Creative Commons to make them legal for fans to download.

This has sparked a debate on the Reddit page about the principles behind Creative Commons. One  wrote: “I don’t think music or anything else should be “public domain.” What right do we have to their work? Not like it is all that expensive either. It seems most people now want everything free and everything right now. Free books, free movies, free music, free college”.

Like the good liberal-minded guy I am, I can see both sides of this argument. However, my view is that whether you like it or not, it is already the case that countless books, articles, albums and photographs are so freely accessible on the net that they might just as well be officially in the public domain.

The long-term problem this raises is how the creative work behind these products can hope to continue when the creators aren’t making any money directly from their work.

I suspect that crowdfunding sites like Pledgemusic or Kickstarter are going to be increasingly important way of supporting arts projects directly while Soundcloud and Bandcamp are ways for upcoming musicians to get their music heard, and maybe even financially rewarded.

I believe that it is simplistic to argue that ‘free’ automatically equates to ‘freedom’ but enlightened souls like Swartz grasped the notion that sharing has become the default position. It is thanks to people like him that we have so much access to human knowledge.

The greatest tribute to his legacy would be to use this knowledge to create a brighter future built on altruistic principles or in the words of a statement of Creative Commons “[to realize] the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity”.

Related links:
Aaron Swartz – from memory to myth (The Verge – article by Tim Carmody)
Eulogy for Aaron Swartz by Quinn Norton
Remembering Aaron Shwartz (Clay Shirky)
VIDEO: Is Aaron Swartz an internet ‘martyr’? (bbc.co.uk)
Aaron Swartz’s “A Programmable Web: An Unfinished Work” (leaksource.wordpress.com)
Aaron Swartz files reveal how FBI tracked internet activist (guardian.co.uk)