Swartz actions not heroic

Aaron Swartz was an Internet innovator. He helped develop Rich Site Summary (RSS), a method for delivering changing content on a website to users.

But in 2011, Swartz was charged with stealing millions of articles from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s digital archives. The articles were only supposed to be available to subscribers to the digital library JSTOR and MIT students.

On Friday, Swartz committed suicide rather than face a trial in April that could have sent him to prison for up to 35 years and brought a million-dollar fine.

Swartz’s defenders say he sought no personal gain from the hacking of the library and only wished to make the articles available to the general public.

But United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz said that doesn’t matter. USA Today quoted a statement from Ortiz at the time of the charges:

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

We agree with Ortiz. Intellectual property is property. Only the owner can decide whether to charge for it or give it away. To ignore Swartz’s transgressions would have been the equivalent of telling authors there is – officially – no value to your writings.

Swartz’s death is a tragedy. But the actions that eventually led to it were not heroic – they were a crime.

(Editor’s Note: Some information for this editorial was garnered from a column on USA Today’s website and from – both free-access websites.)

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.