Statement – “Free” Guru Larry Lessig Should Condemn the Alleged Actions of Aaron Swartz

by Mike Wendy on July 20, 2011

Miami, July 20, 2011 – MediaFreedom calls on free culture guru, Larry Lessig, to condemn the alleged actions of protégé Aaron Swartz, the latter being indicted in federal court for stealing millions of documents from MIT in an ostensible effort to free that information.

Aaron Swartz & Larry Lessig, circa 2002 (source: wikipedia)

Though all individuals have free will, Lessig’s effect on Swartz – who was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, directed by Lessig – is well documented.   And there’s another connection: Lessig’s pointed criticism of JSTOR, the object of Swartz’s alleged poaching, as noted in this presentation before CERN in April.

If Swartz did what he’s accused of, could Lessig’s long-held views and activism have pushed Swartz over the top?  Who knows?  Of course, Lessig could help clear up some of this confusion with a clear statement condemning the alleged act.

Under the law, Swartz is presumably innocent.  Still, Lessig – as well as others in the access to knowledge / free culture crowd like Public Knowledge, CDT, EFF, and Free Press – cannot lay claim to moral superiority if they approve the stealing of private property in any context.

Silence = acceptance.  Ethics Director, Larry Lessig, what say you?


photo: wikipedia

txpatriot July 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Using “Lessig” and “ethics” in the same sentence is a contradiction in terms.

Mike Wendy July 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Yes, the irony is rich, eh?

Lessig July 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for the forum.

An indictment is an allegation. It states facts the government believes it can prove. It isn’t proof of the facts. It is one side in a dispute.

Even if the facts the government alleges are true, I am not sure they constitute a crime. There is considerable uncertainty in this area of the law. Many wonder about the quick conversion of terms-of-service into criminal prosecution. But that’s a question the courts will ultimately have to resolve.

Nonetheless, if the facts are true, even if the law is not clear, I, of course, believe the behavior is ethically wrong. I am a big supporter of changing the law. As my repeated injunctions against illegal file sharing attest, however, I am not a believer in breaking bad laws. I am not even convinced that laws that protect entities like JSTOR are bad. And even if sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate, even then the disobedient disobeys the law and accepts the punishment.

That, however, begs the question of the appropriate punishment. I can’t believe Aaron did this for personal gain. Unlike, say, Wall Street (and what were the penalties they suffered?), this wasn’t behavior designed to make the man rich. Nor, if the allegations are true, was this behavior designed to interfere with any of JSTORs activity. It wasn’t a denial of service. It wasn’t designed to take any facility down.

What it was is unclear. What the law will say about it is even more unclear. What is not unclear, however, to me at least, is the ethical wrong here. I have endless respect for the genius and insight of this extraordinary kid. I cherish his advice and our friendship. But I am sorry if he indeed crossed this line. It is not a line I believe it right to cross, even if it is a line that needs to be redrawn, by better laws better tuned to the times.

Mike Wendy July 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Thank you, Larry, for this thoughtful response.

Mihaly Borbely July 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

The main reason I’m a big fan of Lessig is that he is not at all an extremist. This again was a fair and respectful response, which proves he is free of the radicalism that makes some “freedom fighters” unrealistic and counterproductive. Respect.

Ilias December 21, 2012 at 2:30 am

Hi Larry,
I recently got interested in this case and story trying to understand more.

Can you please clarify which part you consider “ethically wrong” ?
Do you base it on the “allegation” of Swartz “intent” to distribute the documents publicly? Of using this as a form of civil disobedience?


Prosecute Harvard January 13, 2013 at 7:53 am

I refused to fuck, suck or lick dirty pussy-fucker Paul J. Barreira and his Harvard friends. I’m takin my civil disobedience punishment now. Guess that explains all the criminal charges against me.

Maik December 7, 2015 at 8:10 pm

Stop trolling, Taran/Nobody, I’ve read Lessig’s work. And I didn’t say that he said all ptpreroy is theft that’s a quote variously attributed to John Updike and others. THAT was merely to sum up the idea that many people *more extreme than Lessig* espouse, invoking him.I don’t see the balance you claim at all in Lessig’s work. I also know that people who try to criticize him are set upon by junkyard dogs that fiercely protect his ideology who are usually more extreme than he is.BTW, it doesn’t take much ingenuity to come up with a criticism of Darwin, looking at the created world. In fact, you could say something like, God created evolution har har.Open your mind.anon, I fail to understand why samizdat, which grew up by authors who were censored or who had no hope of being published, and who in fact did often publish abroad and get paid for the work (Sinyavsky and Daniel, to name but two) and people who are NOT censored, who have ample opportunity to publish without restriction, if nowhere else, on their blogs.I don’t make any moral equivalence whatsoever between the Soviet Union of the 1960s-1990s and the United States at that time or now. That would be absurd.Copyright and payment for work protects the ability of people to make a living with their work. If you zoom in on this or that example of copyright that appears absurd to you 100-year-old copyrights, ad jingles long since replaced, etc. you will find absurdities. But taken as a whole, the system works to *make it possible for artists/creators/writers to earn a living.Nothing I have seen in Creative Commons makes it possible for people to earn a living in the same way. I don’t see Julian Dibbell going off to publish ALL his books in this fashion. I don’t see him putting his most recent article in Wired, for which he was paid handsomely, up on a blog. So it’s empty, it’s facile, it’s actually a kind of Big Lie, because it basically enables people who *are* paid to just posture now and then and make it seem like they are providing Art for the People which is fake, they aren’t.

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