Stealing, Copying, and the 4,000,000-Document Non-Theft

Recently, a young man named Aaron Swartz was arrested after an incident at MIT. Apparently, he had been using MIT’s network to download millions of documents from JSTOR, an online archive of scientific journal articles and the like. (Access to JSTOR is purchased by universities like MIT, and like Harvard, where Swartz is an employee).

What can this incident — and reaction to it — tell us about copyright in the U.S.? In this article, I’ll paint this incident as a symptom of larger copyright issues in our society. I’m not going to necessarily argue whether copyright is good or bad, but I will argue that public perception of copyright has been twisted away from all common-sense definitions — twisted by design. By the end, I hope to change the way you think about “intellectual property”, or at least cause you to consider how your views are shaped by the terms used in the debate.

Let’s start with Swartz.

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