I’m still blogging about Aaron Swartz.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I heard news of his death and started reading about his case is how successfully American culture has demonized people who believe in freedom of information. I can’t believe our societal condemnation of copyright infringement as THEFT THEFT THEFT! isn’t what enabled the U.S. Attorney to go after Aaron like she smelled blood.
I am not disinterested in the intellectual property debate, personally, professionally, or financially: I work in film, and I make my money off people paying for creative endeavors. I believe in freer information because I believe it’s better for creators and better for society, that artists will earn more money and have greater longevity for their work in a freer culture, that the public sphere will benefit from the dissemination and mixing of ideas and knowledge encouraged by greater freedom of information.
I have these opinions because I’ve read extensively on the subject and come to a decision on what attitudes toward intellectual property I feel are appropriate and beneficial. I’m very reasonable about my opinions. I am happy to discuss the ramifications of less stringent reservations of rights and why this might or might not work for different business models, I enjoy discussing statistics and studies, and I don’t accuse anyone who believes in more stringent copyright of DESTROYING SOCIETY!!1 or what have you.
And yet I’ve pretty much stopped discussing intellectual property and copyright issues online. Because every discussion I’ve seen or been party to has dissolved into (what feels like) a large majority—or possibly a very loud minority—of the posters screaming, “THEFT! THEFT! THEFT! Filesharing is STEALING and media pirates are no different from CAR THIEVES OR SHOPLIFTERS!” (Seriously, complete with caps. I’m not exaggerating.) People who admit to the occasional download are reamed as pariahs. There’s no willingness to discuss the fact that theft of physical property has a fundamental difference in the sense that someone else is being deprived of that physical property, and that this point is important, because freedom of information advocates consider it fundamental and it is the reason we differentiate between the two. People turn deaf ears to the fact that copyright infringement is not even equivalent to theft under U.S. law.
Instead, people keep crying, “STEALING! THEFT! STEALING!”
When I have conversations about this in person in the film industry, the assumption among my colleagues is always that we all realize how wrong piracy is. We all get it how horrible it is that people steal, because we make our living off media, and pirates are killing our business, doncha know. (I’m usually the lone person who objects. A lot of things are killing the movie business, but piracy ain’t one of ’em.) Hollywood and organizations such as the MPAA and the RIAA have managed very successful PR campaigns condemning filesharing, and the public has reciprocated with a rabid acceptance and encouragement of such ideas. Copyright law in our country has never been more stringent, the penalties for violating it never more absurd. The fact that we even entertain the notion of horrendously overreaching legislation such as SOPA and PIPA is an indication of how far down the rabbit hole this country has gone. What are we chasing? Where are the abused victims? Why are we so concerned with ruining the lives of college students who download a movie—do we honestly consider them such vicious criminals that we need to flay them with the might of Zeus?
There’s not even evidence copyright infringement does any harm. We don’t have firm evidence it does good, either, but many people, including myself, believe it to be neutral or beneficial to creators on average. I’m not saying that’s a reason to abolish IP law, but I’m trying to put things in perspective. How much sense does it make for a society to demonize an act so thoroughly and severely when it’s possible it doesn’t even hurt anyone?
And here we get into the realm of appropriate response. Because, come on. For the crime of downloading (but never distributing) a bunch of academic articles, the U.S. government wanted to make Aaron Swartz a felon and lock him away for decades. The U.S. Attorney levied thirteen felony indictments against him that could have carried up to a 50-year jail sentence, and released a statement saying, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar.”
That statement should have been met with ridicule. The level of charges should have been shouted down by everyone who saw it for the gross overreach it was. Instead, such a mad prosecution was allowed to go forward unhindered; in fact, our cultural mentality encouraged it rather than hampering it. And that scares me.
I read a fascinating article this morning about the cultural push to redefine the word “hacktivist” as black-hat and criminal (hat tip to Bruce Schneier for the link), and it aligned perfectly with my feelings on how it seems our culture is going guns blazing after hackers, pirates, and filesharers in the court of public opinion, how we’re redefining terms and using loaded language like “theft,” which has never been equivalent to copyright infringement. And it’s working. It’s allowed for injustices like what the government did to Aaron Swartz. And if we can’t start having sane conversations about intellectual property law and the appropriate consequences for breaking it, it will allow for more.
There’s a petition to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office. I’ve signed it.