Interview with “Idealist” Author Justin Peters: New Book About Aaron Swartz and His Greater Role In Copyright History

idealistIn the days immediately following Aaron’s death, Justin Peters was one of the many reporters that contacted me in the hopes of figuring out what happened.

I wasn’t much help at all figuring that out, because, at the time, I had no idea about the situation, except what I had read in the press.

What I could tell them about was Aaron in his youth, what it was like working with him when we were starting Creative Commons, a bit of the ideology behind it, and some of the movements that followed.

Most of the reporters weren’t as interested in Aaron’s history as much as the tragedy at hand. Justin Peters, who was writing an article for Slate magazine, was different. He seemed to care not only about what had happened, but also, what events could have possibly led up to that outcome, on a historical scale, in the context of everything else going on during the time.

Justin Peters, Author of “The Idealist”

He was obviously trying to understand a lot more than the basic facts of what had taken place. He was asking real questions, trying to get to the bottom of the mess, but also asking the larger, looming questions, like: how could something like this happen in our democratic “free” society? How do things exist in our country like having to pay by the page to access the law (as is the case with PACER) or having to pay $50 an article to access anything more than the abstract of a scientific journal (unless you had already bought your way into a prestigious university)?

We talked about a lot of subjects that might have seemed tangential to many. Aaron was involved in a lot of different important projects, all at once. Justin seemed to be trying to understand how it all fit together. I spoke to Justin for a long time on two separate occasions. The second time we spoke, he admitted that he wanted more information for something “that might go beyond this story for Slate.”

The Slate article came out and was quite comprehensive. A few months later, I heard that Justin had gone on leave from his job to write an entire book on Aaron Swartz.

That book just came out January 12th. It’s called The Idealist.

I caught up with Justin to ask him about what kinds of things he learned in the process of writing the book.

Lisa: How was it that you came to realize that you really felt the like to wanted to create a book on this topic?

Justin: Even though the Slate article turned out to be 15,000 words long, I felt that I was barely scratching the surface of the story of Aaron’s life and the circumstances of his death. In order to tell the full story, I would have to explain just how we got to the point where academic research papers were considered private property, and downloading those papers without explicit permission could be deemed a federal crime. And I eventually realized that the only way to adequately answer these questions – which seemed so central to understanding Aaron’s story – would be to write a full-length book. Once I came to that conclusion, there was no turning back.

Lisa: Did anything specific make you say to yourself – I want to keep going with this. (When you were researching.)

Justin: In August of 2014, I went to Champaign, Illinois to look at the personal papers of Michael Stern Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg. At that time, the book was not going well: the chapters weren’t coming together, I was struggling to connect the history sections with the Aaron Swartz sections, I was close to blowing my first deadline, and I felt stymied by my own authorial limitations and basically wanted to just give up on the project. And then Hart’s personal papers turned out to be really, really fascinating and rich in detail. The two days I spent in the archives there, researching the genesis of Project Gutenberg and the life of its creator, really gave me a second wind—and gave me an obvious bridge between the history chapters and the modern-day chapters. I walked out of the archives saying “I know how to do this now! I have to tell this story!”

Lisa: Let’s talk about that. It sounds like you had one vision of the book going, that wasn’t working out, and you became inspired after looking through the personal papers of Michael Stern Hart.  How did you even end up looking at his papers? How does Project Gutenberg tie in with Aaron’s greater story?

Justin: Yeah, that’s basically right. I had always known about Project Gutenberg, but I didn’t realize that it had been around in one form or another since 1971. When I learned that, I started thinking “Wow, that’s super early! I bet there’s a good story there.” I love archives and primary sources—there’s no better way to learn about a person than to examine his or her own writings—so when I learned that Hart’s papers had been preserved at the University of Illinois, I booked a ticket to Champaign almost immediately. And as soon as I started examining his papers, I found that Hart sort of reminded me of Aaron, in terms of his idealism, his precocity, and his interest in free culture. Project Gutenberg was perhaps the first digital attempt to digitize public domain material and bring it to the masses for free. I see Hart as a kindred spirit to Aaron, and the story of Project Gutenberg as very much a predecessor to Aaron’s own work with the public domain.

Lisa: Do you see what happened to Aaron as sort of the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between Copyright and the Public Good?

Justin: That’s absolutely right. This struggle has been going on for literally centuries. Over the last several decades, the people who have advocated for longer copyright terms have been winning. They’ve been very successful in not only lobbying for laws that support their position, but in making the argument that longer copyright terms serve the public good; that functionally eternal copyright benefits the public by ensuring that authors will see more profit from the sale of their works, and thus hopefully write more works. Every time a new communications technology becomes popular, this struggle renews itself, with increasing ferocity. Aaron was, in part, a casualty of this struggle.

Lisa: My takeaway from the early chapters in the book was that The Statue of Anne’s existence was never actually to “protect authors,” but rather, was aimed at securing publisher’s profits, from the beginning. Is that correct?

Justin: The British publishers and printers who lobbied for the Statute of Anne in the early 18th century wanted to protect their own interests first and foremost. They knew that a copyright law would help stabilize their own businesses and their own profits, and help stifle competition in the industry. And they realized that the best way to obtain that law was to convince Parliament that the law was primarily meant for the benefit of authors and readers. The printers were being disingenuous, and they knew it.

That said, the Statute of Anne did end up helping authors. That’s important to acknowledge. By decreeing that copyright belonged to the author, as opposed to the publisher or printer, Parliament gave British authors a measure of control over their own works, and framed copyright as a production incentive instead of just a censorship tool. Authors in England had absolutely zero legal standing prior to The Statute of Anne. The Stationers’ charter didn’t mention authors at all; it was all about giving printers absolute and perpetual control over the works they published. By saying — however disingenuously — that authors themselves held the right to copy their own works, the Statute of Anne at least advanced the notion that the author was an integral part of the publication process, and I think it’s fair to interpret this as a step up for authors from where they were before.

Lisa: One last thing: Am I to understand that Noah Webster of all people is mostly to blame for convincing our country’s early politicians to adopt  systems much like England’s copyright infrastructure, state by state, after The Articles of Confederation were established?

Justin: If anyone deserves the title of “The Father of Copyright in America,” it’s probably Webster, who, as a young man in the 1780s, went around lobbying the various state legislatures on behalf of authorial copyright. Before he compiled his famed Dictionary, Webster was a tremendously ambitious young striver who had written a spelling textbook that he hoped would become nationally popular, and in the process, make him rich and famous. So he spent years making the case for copyright—and for himself—to legislators and civic leaders across the new nation; when Congress passed the first federal copyright act in 1790—the law was based on the Statute of Anne—Webster took credit for having brought the matter to the nation’s attention.

Lisa: You just wrapped up your book tour, but you mentioned you were open to doing more book signings or events in the future?

Justin: Yes. Please contact me on Twitter @justinrevett or email me at: justintrevett at fastmail dot fm, if you’d like to try to bring me to an event in your town. Thanks.

Chelsea Manning Interviewed on BoingBoing

Chelsea Manning interview: DNA, big data, official secrecy, and citizenship

by Cory Doctorow for BoingBoing.

Photo of the actual exhibit, in Davos, Switzerland, at last week's Economic Forum. Photo by: danah boyd, Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum
Photo of the actual exhibit, in Davos, Switzerland, at last week’s World Economic Forum. Photo by: danah boyd, Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum

From the article:

The U.S. Government has refused to confirm or deny that there is any ongoing investigation in to your matter, but it looks like they spilled some beans to you? Can you explain what happened, and what it means?

Nearly two years ago, I requested a copy of the FBI files related to their role in the investigation of my case. After going through a lengthy FOIA process, I finally filed a lawsuit to compel the FBI and the Department of Justice to turn over these records.

The basis of their denial is that there is still an ongoing investigation into my case. They have admitted as such before the court in a joint filing. This is the reason that they won’t turn these records over. However, their response is still vague. The government has not acknowledged who they are investigating, or why—just that it is directly related to my case and court martial…

What’s your call to arms for people who care about the issues that sent you to jail? What should they be doing? What would you be doing, if you were free?

Read everything. Ask your own questions. Be your own filter. Nobody is going to look at the world around you and tell you what important things are happening that affect you and the ones you love.

They will sell you things. They will ask you to vote for them. They will offer their services to you. They have an ambiguous agenda that doesn’t really involve your interests as a citizen. There is a difference between a consumer—who passively receives the information that they are spoon fed—and a citizen—who engages with society, asks questions, does research, and works towards making a difference in their neighborhood, city, and country. This is what I try to be—whether I’m in prison or outside—I keep reading and asking questions as a citizen.

Chelsea Manning digital rendering from DNA - gender parameter assigned female - photo credit Heather Dewey-Hagborg
Chelsea Manning digital rendering from DNA – gender parameter assigned female – photo credit Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Chelsea Manning Reviews “The Boy Who Could Change The World”

boy_who_could_change_the_world_finalRemembering Aaron Swartz: My Review of “The Boy Who Could Change The World – By Chelsea Manning

From the review:

For me, reading this book was a revelatory experience. This compilation reminded me of when I read The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a teenager a number of years ago. Unlike Dr. King, I honestly never really knew just deep the brilliance and idealism of Aaron was until I read some of his lesser known and older pieces…

Throughout his writing, Aaron ceaselessly and confidently expresses his underlying ideology. At times, Aaron — being a young person throughout — is inconsistent and contradictory. However, at the root of it all, is his unwavering belief in the power of the people — especially the average citizen. He believes in the strength of the little guy. Aaron also prods us to create tools that make the world better for everyone, whether rich or poor…

I feel like the world abandoned Aaron in his time of need. I feel like the world — myself included — took Aaron for granted. He intelligently and thoughtfully challenged everything and everyone: software companies, corporations, multimedia conglomerates, governments, and even modern school systems! Yet, in his final challenge — we only stood on the sidelines and rooted for him, waiting for him to win again. Instead, he lost. Then, we lost.

Read the complete review here.

Brewster Kahle at Aaron Swartz San Francisco Memorial 2013

Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, January 24, 2013
Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, January 24, 2013

From the San Francisco Aaron Swartz Memorial. January 24, 2013.

Brewster does a great job of explaining to us about Aaron’s “Open Source Life,” and how “bulk downloading” (although it got Aaron into trouble) is in itself, is not only “not a crime,” but a desirable action with outcomes that benefit the public.

He also sheds light on Aaron’s ongoing quests to make U.S. legal court documents (via PACER) and works in the Public Domain (via GoogleBooks) more publicly accessible (rather than locking both up  behind paywalls or with cumbersome downloading restrictions).

Brewster Kahle:

I learned from Aaron what living an Open Source life was like. I think he really did live that way. He floated and helped others. He gave everything away. He really wasn’t tied to an institution. He really was not a company man in any sense. He was really quite pure in his motivations, and it made him incredibly effective at cutting through a lot of the stuff that most of us deal with.

An open source life.

He was able to keep his self interests at bay, which is kind of remarkable for a lot of us. But he was able to do it. And he was able to communicate well with an open smile and a kind heart. He had a way of communicating with this energy on things that mattered and he had a genius at finding things that mattered to millions of people. There are lots of things to work on, but the things that he worked on were incredibly effective.

We first met, I think, in 2002 at the Eldred Supreme Court case in Washington DC, where we drove a Bookmobile Across, celebrating the Public Domain by giving away books that kids made, and also then at the Creative Commons Launch. But I really got to know Aaron when he said ‘I’d really like to help make the Open Library website with the Internet Archive’ to go and give books and integrate books into the Internet itself. And he said “I’ve got this cool technology, called “Infogami,” it really made it possible to make Reddit happen. Let’s use it again for this other thing.”

And it was wonderful to work with him, but it was really unlike working with anybody else I’ve ever met. You certainly couldn’t tell him what to do, he just kind of did what was the right thing to do, and he was right certainly a lot more often than I was. We also worked together in other areas, when he was a champion of open access, especially of the Public Domain. Bringing public access to the Public Domain.

Most people think that’s kind of an obvious thing. Doesn’t “the Public Domain” mean that it’s publicly accessible? Of course all of us say “No!” It’s sort of like there are these National Parks, with moats and walls and guns turrets sort of pointing out, in case someone wanted to come near the Public Domain. And Aaron didn’t think this was right. And he spent a lot of time and effort freeing these materials.

One of the first ones that we were actively working together on was freeing government court cases, so that anybody could see this without having to have special privilege or money, and also to make it so you could data mine it, and go and look at these things in a very different way. So he freed and liberated a lot of court cases from the PACER system, and uploaded them, in bulk, to the Internet Archive, so that people could have access to these. There are now 4 Million documents, from 800,000 cases that have been used by 6 million people, because of the project that Aaron Swartz and others helped start.

It was an interesting project because it went over many different organizations, each playing a role and all cooperating in a very non-corporate way. It was a very Aaron style way of making things happen. And the idea of making court documents and legal documents available more easily struck a chord with me because, in college, I was trying to figure out how I was gonna try to get out of the draft. And my college didn’t have a legal collection, and the only way that I could try to get to legal court documents was to get an ID from my professor and break in to the Harvard Law Library to go and read court documents. That sucked! It really makes no sense, and Aaron not only sort of saw that it doesn’t make sense. He decided he was going to try to help solve this. Not just for himself, but for everyone.

Then there was other Public Domain collections like the Google Books Collection. Google Books was a library project to go and digitize lots and lots of books. A lot of them were Public Domain. Google would make them available from their website, but really really painfully. It would make it so if you wanted one book, you could get one book. If you wanted 100 books, they would turn off your IP address forever. This is no way to have public access to the Public Domain, and the Internet Archive started getting these uploads of “Google Books.” Going faster, and faster, and faster. Like well, where are these coming from? Well it turns out it’s Aaron. He and a bunch of friends figured out that they could go and get a bunch of computers to go slowly enough to just clock through tons of Google Books and upload them to the Internet Archive. Interestingly, Google never got upset about it. The libraries, on the other hand, grumbled. Which is so… Well anyway. They’ll get over it.

So, when this started happening, we said “Ok. What’s going on? Should we be concerned?” The answer was “No, it’s Public Domain.” We just made sure that we got the cataloging data right, and we linked back to Google, so that if you’re on the book, you can go back to the original page and see the da da da da da. And it all worked well.

But there it was. Aaron doing it again; bringing access to the Public Domain.

What is crushing to me is that Aaron got ensnared by the Federal Government for doing something that the Internet Archive actively encourages others to do for our collections, and we think all libraries should encourage, which is: Bulk downloading to support data mining and other research using computers. This is just the way the world works.

The first step is for a computer to read and analyze materials is to download a set of documents. When Aaron did this from one library, JSTOR, they strongly objected, and demanded that MIT find and stop that user, which then led U.S. Prosecutors to pull out their worst techniques.

Did anybody stop to ask if bulk downloading is a crime? I say “No. Bulk downloading is not, in itself, a crime.” Let’s stop this practice of discouraging bulk downloading, because there are encouraging projects that are learning amazing new things by having computers be part of the research process. Let’s not stop this and discourage young people from coming up with new and different ways to learn things from our libraries.

What resulted, in this case, was tragic, and not necessary. Really, what we want is computers to be able to read. Aaron knew this. We’re all building this, and he got ensnared anyway. Let’s let our computers read.

Because of this tragedy, JSTOR, whom I talked to this morning, and the Internet Archive, have agreed to meet to discuss the broad issue of data mining and web crawling. I hope that we really make progress. At least there’s reasons to be positive.

This assault on Aaron would disillusion, discourage and depress any principled young man, and if there ever was a principled young man, it was Aaron Swartz.

We miss you, and we will carry on your important work.

Link to Brewster’s talk on video at

All Speakers, SF Memorial, at

Open Mic Portion of memorial (Includes John Perry Barlow and many other incredible talks)

The Boy Who Could Change The World – and the Book that changed Aaron’s Life

boy_who_could_change_the_world_finalI’ve been reading The Boy Who Could Change The World this weekend, although it’s probably an extra-emotional experience for me, due to the timing. It really is a wonderful collection of writings from Aaron’s curious and insightful mind.

Besides the content from Aaron’s blog, two longer, previously unpublished essays are included in the  “Politics” and “School” chapters of the book. These were found in the Safra Center archives.

The finished masterpiece was Edited by Jed Bickman at The New Press.

Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen edited the section on “Free Culture,” and wrote its introduction. Cory Doctorow edited and wrote an introduction for the “Media” section.

David Auerbach edited and wrote the introduction for the “Computers” section. David Segal and Henry Farrell edited “Politics.” (David did the introduction, Henry the postscript for the section.) James Grimmelmann edited and wrote and introduction for “Books and Culture. Astra Taylor edited and wrote an introduction for the “Unschool” section.

One excerpt that stood out to me was Aaron’s enthusiastic account of  The Book That Changed My Life. (The book being Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky.) Although the piece is titled “The Book That Changed My Life,” it turns out it was a film,  Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, that caused him to find and read the book.

From The Book That Changed My Life:

Each story, individually, can be dismissed as some weird oddity, like what I’d learned about the media focusing more on posters than on policy. But seeing them all together, you can’t help but begin to tease out the larger picture, to ask yourself what’s behind all these disparate things, and what that means for the way we see the world.

Events Going On Monday For This Year’s Sad Anniversary

Thoughtworks will be hosting a number of “Celebrating Aaron” events going on across the country to give people a place to gather, celebrate and learn more about Aaron and his legacy.

I’ll be at the San Francisco event at 6pm. See you there.

These events are also promoting the new book of Aaron’s writings titled “The Boy Who Could Change the World,” from The New Press.

From the Thoughtworks website:

In our offices all over the US, we’re honoring Aaron’s contributions to technology and society. Join us in a local office on Aaron Swartz Day for book giveaways, screenings of The Internet’s Own Boy, and discussion.

San Francisco
6-9PM | 814 Mission St., 5th Floor

6-9PM | 1175 Peachtree St. NE, Suite 1400 

6-9PM | 200 E Randolph St, 25th Floor
*We will be selling copies of The Boy Who Could Change The World.  The suggested minimum is $20, with all proceeds being donated to Black Girls Code.  We have 25 copies of the book, and it will be first come first serve.  

6-9PM | 15540 Spectrum Drive, Addison 

New York
6-9PM | 99 Madison Ave, 15th Floor