Aaron Swartz was a freedom of the Internet activist and an alleged hacker who was being prosecuted under an accusation of having hacked into an MIT JSTOR repository and downloading millions of copyrighted documents and making them freely available. During pre-trial plea bargain negotiations, he committed suicide. His suicide has put a spotlight on a serious debate, this one between intellectual property and digital democracy.
This debate flows from a false dichotomy. Digital democracy demands the existence of intellectual property (rights), for without intellectual property rights, there can be no (digital) democracy—there can be only the rule of the stronger over the weaker, or the richer over the poorer.
Our own social compact recognizes the importance of this. Article I, Section 8 says
The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries[.]
Without such protections, there can be little incentive to invent at all, physically or intellectually, since the work can be taken by anyone with the physical or financial means to do so and made freely available—or for a fee of the taker’s choosing and payable only to the taker—thereby denying the inventor the ability to recoup even his development costs, much less to earn a living from his work. Moreover, those inventions that can have significant financial value in a market and so will be developed anyway will, without such protections, be developed only in secret, at the attendant slow pace, and then only made available at high cost to well-off buyers—since once made available at all, the secret will be public and the mechanism of the invention freely available. In short, the wherewithal to innovate will not exist for the common man, being only available to the strongest or the richest, and so innovation will occur only glacially and secretively, or not at all.
It is, further, the protection of property rights, intellectual or any other, that gives a man the wherewithal to improve his own lot in life, to increase his own prospects and prosperity, to satisfy his duty to family, friends, and neighbors. It is the (temporary) monopoly control over his invention that enables the inventor to recoup his costs and subsequently to earn his living from that work.
On a practical level, it’s expensive to feed, digitize, and organize, for instance, JSTOR’s millions of files; accordingly, JSTOR charges subscription fees to recoup those costs. Were Swartz and his fellows allowed to proceed with such hacks, innovations like JSTOR might not even exist to be attacked.
Reasonable men can argue about how long a man’s monopoly protection of his invention should last, but that he should enjoy that sole control over his invention and its issue for some period should be beyond dispute.