Blink and you would miss it, but, on 12 January, the media reported that 26-year-old Aaron Swartz had hanged himself in his New York apartment the night before.
He did not leave a suicide note as most suicides do, but, while some police forces always suspect foul play when a suicide is noteless, in Swartz’s case he did have a very good motive.
Something of an internet prodigy, Aaron co-authored RSS, the internet syndication standard, at the tender age of 14. Having co-founded popular community website Reddit while still in his teens, Aaron also helped to found Demand Progress, a political action campaign group against internet censorship.
A committed open-source programmer and a determined activist for freedom of information over the internet, at the time of his death, Aaron was looking at up to 35 years inside an American jail for breaking copyright laws.
Aaron was alleged to have hacked into various academic websites and downloaded about four million academic journals, which he planned to distribute free of charge on the web. Having been arrested for this heinous crime in 2011, he was just about to stand trial.
Swartz’s treatment brings to mind the rather different response that greeted the actions of Thomas Wakley, the radical founder of The Lancet, who in the different technology of the early 19th century did exactly what Aaron Swartz did – he reprinted (without permission) the lectures of prominent surgeons and made them available to anyone willing to buy The Lancet.
The prominent surgeons, led by Sir Astley Cooper  of Guy’s were livid, but they got over it, as appeals to “knowledge being the common treasure house of mankind” struck a chord with their sense of what was right and proper.
Thomas Wakley went on to be elected coroner for London, using the coronership to demand reforms to housing and working conditions, better treatment in workhouses and prisons, and even the abolition of flogging in the British Army.
Thomas Wakley is one of the non-socialist yet still reforming heroes the 19th century abounds with. Today, of course, Wakley would hang himself in his flat for fear of the American state dragging him away for 35 years of slow torture.
So what has happened in the interim, that where Wakley could flourish and die in his bed, Swartz was hanged by his own belt, terrified at what the state was going to do to him?
Well, capitalism has got more capitalist, as Marx and Engels told us it would, and the old pre-capitalist idea that “knowledge is the common treasure house of mankind” has disappeared. Today, even long-out-of-print books by long-dead authors are magically in copyright, and if anyone has the temerity to quote from some archived 18th-century letter without express permission, well “Off with their head!”
Under socialism the need for a law of copyright will disappear. End of.
But how will academics and writers live?
Easy. They will get a wage like the plumber or the nurse or the street cleaner or the surgeon.
That might be OK for academics, but how will starting out novelists live?
A bit like now, they’ll write a book. If people like it, they’ll get a wage while they write some more; if not, they’ll have to stick to the day job.
But to return to the here and now, Aaron Swartz rest in peace, yet another victim of barbaric capitalism.
1.Thomas Wakley (1795-1862). Usually described as a radical, he was also MP for Finsbury from 1835-52. He opposed the new Poor Law, defended Chartism and fought against the adulteration of food (among many other issues too numerous to list here).
2.Sir Paston Astley Cooper (1768-1841). Good on ligatures, arteries and aneurysms, and a whole lot of other unpleasant but no doubt extremely useful procedures.
3.At the time London was called central Middlesex. Until 1888, coroners were elected by the local male ratepayers.