What’s Wrong with the Aaron Swartz Book

26 Apr 2016

by Steven Berliner.

This is a backup of a post that used to be located at stevenberliner.me. I no longer blog on my personal website, so I have set up minimal & disconnected versions of some of my old posts to avoid link rot. My current blog is here: https://stevenberliner.tumblr.com/

The Boy Who Could Change The World was a great book. It was a fantastic compilation and summary of Aaron Swartz’s thoughts and opinions, with some of the content so profound that I would easily place the book at a ‘must read’ status for anyone even a tiny bit interested in his philosophies. I read the book a few months ago and I wanted to write about it back then, but for some reason none of the few posts I planned about it to that point came to fruition.

There were two main posts I had started planning, with these pending titles: ‘5 Great Ideas in the Aaron Swartz Book’, and then ‘What’s Wrong with the Aaron Swartz Book.’ I never finished the first one, but lately, as others have started to speak out along with my own issues with the book (namely this and this), I have decided to finally do the same. I do not know if I will ever finish that first post (although I hope I do, since there was some fascinating content in that book that I want to talk about), but right now is when I felt was the best time to finally write the latter post.

Please note that none of this is going to be against the book itself. It is a wonderful book with content that I consider so fascinating and profound that I think most anyone should read it. That is my honest opinion of that book. But that is exactly what amplifies my disappointment with the negative aspects surrounding it. You’ll understand soon.

What is wrong with the book

All rights reserved, huh? All?

Aaron helped create the Creative Commons license. He was a strong believer in sharing work, and the last thing he ever would have done is place barriers of any kind on his thoughts or opinions. So why, then, does the book dedicated to him proudly begin with:

“All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher”?

Considering that the majority (although not the entirety) of this book is content available for free on Aaron’s website with a CC license, I find it strange that they not only copyrighted this book with traditional copyright, but that they claim to reserve ALL rights.

That is what The New Press would like to claim, anyway. However, this claim is in thick dispute, and as I’ll get to in the next subsection, The New Press isn’t exactly hurrying in to defend themselves here.

As a bit of background, about 10 years before Swartz unfortunately took his own life, he designated a man named Sean Palmer to take legal ownership over his site and writings in the case he couldn’t maintain them anymore. That means that Sean Palmer is responsible for compiling The Boy Who Could Change The World, and ultimately agreeing to the terms of its publication. Or at least that’s how it should seem.

The issue is that The New Press (specifically their Associate Editor, Jed Bickman) claims that Palmer gave them “exclusive right to reprint these materials in book form.” Palmer does not agree with this, however, saying that he did not grant exclusive rights to anybody. (1)

This is a pretty big deal, since The New Press had successfully used these supposed “exclusive” rights that they somehow acquired to successfully remove from existence the print edition of a previous book on Swartz’s writings – “Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz”, published by Discovery Publisher. While you can still read a digital version for free, the paper copy has been successfully removed from shelves by The New Press, due to the exclusive rights that Palmer claims was never given to them to start with.

Suspicious, isn’t it? With this sort of information being put forward, one would expect The New Press to be defending themselves and clearing up the confusion! Well, the thing about that…

The New Press is VERY silent.

As far as I know, Palmer did not receive acknowledgment regarding his claim that he never gave out exclusive rights. In fact, pretty much nobody who has tried getting ahold of The New Press has received a response. For better or worse, they’re simply not touching on this issue right now, if even to defend themselves. And I would argue it is for worse.

The thing is, if all of this is really the way things are, it means that this book, as it is currently published, is more taking advantage of Aaron’s legacy than honoring or respecting it. (Edit: I’ve seen people claim that all the profits of this book go to charity, which would make this specific point highly debatable for sure, but I cannot find a good source for that claim. Can anyone chime in on that?) I’d like to see it another way, but given all that has been put forward, and given how utterly silent The New Press has been about everything, that is my conclusion. I would love to have a second opinion put forward, but the only people really qualified to do that are The New Press themselves, and it doesn’t look like they’re about to budge.

Honestly, I feel that being silent is almost the worst thing they could do. They should either confirm that this is really how it is, or defend their actions. Because, at least as it seems to me…

They don’t care what Aaron would’ve wanted

I did not know Aaron personally, but given some of his writings, it seems pretty certain that he would not be okay with how The New Press (and to a similar extent Verso Books, who handles distribution in some areas) is handling things.

For one, Aaron, having opposed the DMCA, would not have approved of The New Press attacking Discovery Publisher with a DMCA takedown regarding their compilation of his free writings. Aaron would never have been so vicious. I feel he would have allowed and welcomed both compilations to exist simultaneously, not offering exclusive rights to anyone. (And again, Palmer claims he never gave exclusive rights to The New Press anyway.)

Two, Aaron would never, and did never, attempt to keep his thoughts exclusively behind a paywall, nonetheless one specific paywall. Swartz would oppose any efforts that could potentially put his thoughts and works behind closed doors like that. While most of the content in this book is available for free online, other parts are not, being more or less exclusive to this book. Aaron would most likely have opposed this. (My favorite article in the book, simply titled ‘School’, is one such article. I would love to share the knowledge and insights in that article with others, but that is not a simple thing to do as-is. According to the “all rights reserved” claim at the start of the book, I cannot safely do that.)

Third, Aaron would be transparent. If he was certainly one thing, he was openly genuine. When Aaron did things, he was open about why he was doing it. His motives and thoughts were not kept secret, and he did not compromise his values. I have to imagine that if he were in the center of such a situation as The New Press, he would not be silent like them.

What isn’t wrong with the book

I again want to emphasize that the book itself is wonderful. And again, I want to emphasize that that is exactly why I worry so much about how The New Press is handling this. In this section, I want to talk about aspects of the book that I did truly appreciate, along with how it could all be handled so much better than what The New Press is doing right now.

Selling it is fine – just don’t restrict it!

First off is the notion of selling it. Personally, I see nothing wrong with it. Yes, most of it was available for free anyway, but putting it all together in a nice package, as well as printing out physical copies of it (or distributing e-book copies of it), is worth something. I think that selling the book is a-okay.

What I’m not okay with, and what I think Aaron would have had issues with too, is restricting it.

While selling the book is fine, attempting to forcefully keep any of the information in the book (including what wasn’t otherwise easily available online) behind their exclusive paywall is wrong. I should be allowed to copy and paste that article, ‘School’, that I really appreciated, and share it freely with everyone. On that note, I should be able to compile my own collection of Aaron’s posts and publish it into my own book, like what Discovery Publisher did in 2014, and The New Press shouldn’t care. However, The New Press, after how vicious they seemingly were to Discovery Publisher, is not making that a safe thing to attempt.

It brought together otherwise hard-to-find pieces.

As mentioned earlier, the article towards the end of the book, ‘School’, is my favorite article in the book. Maybe I’ll cover why I liked it so much in another post, but I found it profound and thought provoking unlike anything I have read in a long time. My ultimate thanks for discovering this article has to go to this book, as I otherwise wouldn’t have found it, since it isn’t available anywhere online that I could find. Wherever Palmer found that content to add it to this compilation, it wasn’t anywhere I probably had easy access to.

That is where compilations like this can also have true value. They’ll allow you to find and read things that you might have never gotten to read.

The content itself does him respect.

As much as its ultimate publishing might go against his thoughts and philosophies, the content of the book itself absolutely does respect Aaron. The book itself and all the content is fantastic, and in my opinion, well worth the price of admission to experience it. Available elsewhere for free or not, I think this package is a good one at the end of the day.

However, The New Press and Verso have a lot to answer for. I hope that this post will assist in giving them the desire to do so, and ultimately to make better what they have done wrong. All of this could easily be fixed, given the desire to do so on their part. What’s sad is that they don’t seem to care. I really hope I can eventually add an update to the top of this post saying that nothing I just wrote is relevant anymore.


The Boy Who Couldn’t Change the World: An Open Letter to Verso Books and The New Press

It’s hard to link to it specifically but ctrl+f “sean” and it’s towards the bottom. The user in question is named Sean. He states:

I can only reiterate that I did not give New Press any exclusive rights over any of Aaron’s work. Nor would I ever do so.

That is a direct quote from Sean himself.