The Public Domain Still Needs Idealism

What is often absent from the conversation about world-changing technologies is whether these technologies will actually create a world that people want to inhabit.

The Idealist does not shed new light on Swartz’s life or death; what it does—and does very well—is put Swartz’s work in context. The book gives an engaging, if knowingly incomplete, account of the history of intellectual property and copyright law, the archaic roots (and current implications) of cyberlaw, and some key players in the ongoing fight between open-data philosophy and the federal government.

“Aaron Swartz has become an avatar for a movement,” Peters writes early on, and it’s true: Swartz’s indictment galvanized activists, just as his death introduced a broader audience to his life’s work.

One of my favorite projects was downloading text files from a website called Project Gutenberg, which was a free digital library, albeit a small one: every title in its collection was in the public domain. I downloaded the books, which were classics like Moby-Dick and Pride and Prejudice; our designer created new covers, branded with our logo (like Penguin Classics, but for startups); and into the app they went.

Did downloading free work, repackaging it, and including it in a paid product owned by a VC-backed, private company feel dirty? Not really; not at all. Public-domain work is constantly repackaged and placed behind paywalls. Any college bookstore is testament to how lucrative this can be. Reuse takes many shapes: in 2009, writer Seth Grahame-Smith published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, splicing the original text with zombie gore, and crediting Jane Austen as a co-author. The book became a New York Times Bestseller.

Emphasis added:

Idealism about technology as a democratizing force currently looks a lot like defense: protecting digital civil liberties, and fighting against further erosion.

In one word my problem with prioritizing concern for public domain by expiration of restrictions or anything that does not tilt the knowledge economy toward commons-based production, i.e., offense.