Opinion editorial.

Aaron Swartz Stole Nothing, But You Wouldn't Know That From the Coverage.

The arrest of Aaron Swartz is clearly uncalled for: he's guilty of nothing Aaron Swartzmore than downloading some files without permission, and we were pleased (though not surprised) to see QuestionCopyright.org board member James Jacobs quoted saying what needs to be said: "Aaron's prosecution undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles. It's incredible that the government would try to lock someone up for allegedly looking up articles at a library."

But beyond the disturbing fact of the arrest itself is a persistent problem in coverage of the case.  Venue after venue refers to Swartz being arrested for "theft" or "stealing", even though he didn't steal anything.  The bias isn't particularly subtle:

Aaron Swartz, the 24-year-old who went from helping to create Reddit to embracing a different brand of progressive activism, has been indicted on federal charges of breaking into MIT and stealing more than four million articles from an online database.

That's from Talking Points Memo, a political news site (boldface ours).  But often the bias starts in the headline:



Adapted from a talk and slide show I presented at the Open Knowledge Conference in Berlin on July 1, 2011. --NP
Crossposted from ninapaley.com

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

-- The Free Software Definition

These are the Four Freedoms of Free Software. They are foundational principles, and they are exactly right. They have served and continue to serve the Free Software Movement very well. They place the user's freedom ahead of all other concerns. Free Software is a principled movement, but Free Culture is not – at least not so far. Why?


For Love or Money: Vocationalism


Ivan Tsarevitch from Morevna Project

"Ivan Tsarevitch" from Morevna Project: I suppose you could call this "programmer art" since the artist is also one of the main developers of Synfig Studio (Konstantin Dmitriev | www.morevnaproject.org / CC-By-SA 3.0)

We need to change the words we use for serious free culture artists. I suggest "vocational": "a vocational work", "a vocational artist", "artists who show vocationalism in their work".

I thought about this as I was considering Nina Paley's story about trying to submit some of her own (very much "vocational" and also "professional") work to the Wikimedia Commons -- only to be disbelieved on the basis that her work was of too high a quality! This concept of "professional" versus "amateur" work has bothered me for a long time. Partly this may be because I often seem to be stuck in between: am I a professional writer or an amateur one? I get paid to write for Free Software Magazine, but I don't get paid very much, and I don't get paid at all to write for Question Copyright. But both tasks are very much a part of my vocation as a writer and as a free culture advocate. I expect to be judged on the same scale as any professional.

Another objection is that the stigma of "amateurishness" is sometimes assigned to free culture art. People speak snidely of "programmer art" (though of course, a few programmers are quite good artists, and vice-versa). I honestly believe that some artists hold back from freeing their work not because they are really worried about remuneration, but because they fear that releasing it for free will somehow cheapen the work (or them) by making it "unprofessional" or "amateur".

Of course, I'm bothered by that idea in itself. There's something a little dirty about the fact that we have so elevated commerce that we now implicitly place professional work (made for money) above amateur work (made for love). Surely there ought to be something a little more holy about work gifted to the world out of an artist's spiritual need than out of their need to pay the rent? (Not that paying the rent isn't important, but there ought to be some respect for the long perspective).



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