This weekend the Public Domain lost one of its most gifted and passionate advocates when Aaron Swartz committed suicide, at age 26.
Aaron was a programmer, a campaigner for social justice, and a believer that the public domain truly belongs to the public. He helped create Reddit, was a chief architect of the Open Library and Creative Commons, was a founder of Demand Progress, which helped defeat SOPA, and kept the Internet open, safe for projects such as LibriVox.
Aaron, who had written publicly about past experience with depression, killed himself two years after he was arrested for downloading, at MIT, millions of academic journal articles (many in the public domain) from JSTOR, a non-profit journal repository. The authorities were seeking punishment of 35 years in jail, $1 million in fines. It’s been estimated that his defense would have cost $1.5 million in legal fees.
It’s hard to express the scale of loss to all of us, the community of the Internet. I met Aaron only once, but I’ve admired his work for years. By 26, he had done more than most of us will ever do in our lifetimes, driven by his vision of the public good. While it is always shocking when someone we have met dies, the greatest pain is contemplating everything that Aaron Swartz would have done for the world, which he will never get the chance to do.
And so, those of us who were inspired by Aaron’s vision of the world — perhaps some of you who are just now discovering what Aaron stood for — are left to contemplate a future where it is up to us, without Aaron’s help, to make the world a better place. I hope we don’t let him down.
If you’d like to read a bit more about Aaron: