An enormous system of legal and commercial machinery (i) makes it possible for you to read this, or to read anything, or to listen to music or see a show, and (ii) makes it worthwhile for anyone to provide it for you. This machinery was created by some of the most brilliant minds in the law, government, and business, but they made it for a world that no longer exists.
When industrial machinery breaks, it produces less, or worse, stuff, and sometimes it maims or kills workers. The machinery of intellectual property worked more or less well until about thirty years ago, despite wrenches like mindless and venal copyright extension to make Disney heirs even richer being thrown into it. That machinery has not, however, survived being tasked to process digital content, which has broken teeth off its gears, garbled its control system, and clogged its conveyor network. Stuff is falling out of the system to be swept up as trash, lost in transit, delivered broken or with parts missing, sent to the wrong recipients, and it’s piling up in warehouses where no-one can use it. Half-finished goods sit, sometimes forever, waiting for essential parts. The waste of the most precious stuff in the world is bad enough, and the prices my students are paying for textbooks (and for my services) are bad enough, but today we learned that the malfunctioning machinery has killed a worker, and not just any worker but a genius engineer, and philanthropist in the best sense of the word, who had only begun to design priceless parts of it.
Aaron Swartz’s death isn’t just overreach or judgment error by a Boston judge and prosecutor, though if either of them ever again dines with anyone whose cultural competence is higher than a Big Mac it will be an outrage. It was an industrial accident caused by ongoing, feckless, reckless failure to maintain the intellectual property machinery, a core piece of social infrastructure being run into the ground for greed (no, not for efficient price signals) by the ignorant, the frightened, and the incompetent. The reasoning of the captains of this industry, as their sales fall, bookstores close, newspapers shrink and close, and our best musicians wait on tables, goes as follows: “It’s our property, shut up!” It is a failure of the law to accommodate reality.
Aaron isn’t the only casualty of this system, either: people are dying all over the world for want of drugs trapped in the patent system. Maybe we should think of him as channeling Mario Savio: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! ….you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and …make it stop!”
Joe Hill would say, “Don’t mourn for Aaron, organize!” We need Aaron’s Law, a reform of intellectual property law that recognizes the world the way it is, more than we need anything except climate stabilization; indeed, if we don’t get Aaron’s Law we will not be able to do the politics (or the science) that could save the planet, or whatever your favorite piece of collective work may be. If you read, write, sing, listen, or think, you will be talking about this with your other friends who do those things and watch for a chance to get engaged. I’m looking, too, and when I find some, I’ll post them here. [minor edits 9:16PM PST 12/I/13]