You may not have heard of Aaron Swartz, but chances are you’ve used something he helped create. At 14, he contributed to the RSS specification, which lets people subscribe to new content from a website. He worked on Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that helps people share creative works. He founded Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group that helped defeat anti-piracy legislation. He was also one of the founders of the social site Reddit.

However, Swartz was also known for using his programming skills on systems to look for loopholes that allowed him to obtain huge numbers of documents. Most recently, he gained access to 4 million academic documents held by the Journal Storage (JSTOR) system, which he intended to make available for free.

Ironically, JSTOR didn’t charge Swartz, after he gave the files back and promised not to redistribute them. But by using the amount of money that people are charged for access to the system – up to $50,000 for a university subscription — prosecutors were able to claim that the documents he had downloaded were worth millions of dollars. In addition, they filed an assortment of 13 federal charges, which could have resulted in 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine. In fact, it’s been suggested by some of his supporters that this aggressive prosecution may have driven him to suicide on January 11, at 26.

His death is opening larger issues, such as: What is a document worth? Who owns a document? Who should be allowed to have access to it, and who decides? What is the nature of computer crime and how should it be charged?  

For example, was the valuation prosecutors put on the JSTOR documents legitimate? Basing it on the cost of subscriptions is certainly one way to calculate it (and, if followed, should make document and records managers get a lot more respect for being the guardians of such a valuable possession).

On the other hand, once purchased, JSTOR documents are free to users, noted John Schwartz in the New York Times. So while academic organizations probably didn’t think in terms of a user downloading all of them, it does potentially reduce the offense to  “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library,” as described by David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress.

In any event, it certainly suggests that organizations should decide whether they want to limit the number of documents that a person should be able to retrieve, what people should be allowed to do with documents, and to publicize this policy.

And then there’s the issue of holding onto documents, particularly in the area of government, where taxpayer money was used to create and maintain them. Governments and universities may want to consider releasing documents to the public on a schedule, in the same way that organizations are advised to delete documents on a schedule – particularly if printed versions of the same documents are available to the public.

There is a movement among academics, for example, to make their works freely available via PDF as a tribute to Swartz, and JSTOR had already decided a few days before his suicide to provide limited free public access to its documents. 

Meanwhile, Swartz’ supporters are mourning his loss, not just for the accomplishments he had already performed but also for what he could have accomplished in the future. And amid widespread criticism, including a White House petition asking for lead U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz to be removed — prosecutors have quietly dismissed the JSTOR case against him.

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