From Creative Commons to GPL, the death of Aaron Swartz has re-energized our thinking about the never-easy issues of licensing and control of software and content.
It's easy to forget the Internet was built by people, people who gave us big, hairy, audacious solutions in spite of, or because of, irreparable fissures in their psyches. Aaron Swartz's suicide on January 11 momentarily took the oxygen from the air. Still stunned, we're trying to make sense of the many and varied projects that he left us.
David Weinberger on CNN said:
But you can't explain the Internet's grief simply by referring to Aaron's unearthly technical prowess. You may notice a pattern in the projects Aaron worked on: They're about making it easier to share information on the Internet.
In a few weeks, MIT should conclude its investigation into Swartz's death, after the educational institution came under fire for its role in the felony charges facing the open-source advocate. There are many other reasons to remember Swartz, who helped shape today's Internet -- and whose initiatives will continue to mold the ways in which many of us communicate and work.
His legacy is one of action. Already, from #PDFTribute to Aaron's Law, folks are finding ways to ensure that his ideas continue to move us forward.
One of the ways to make information easier to share, paradoxically, is to control. That's what he did when he liberated content from PACER. That's what he did in Creative Commons and his use of GPL. That's what he was doing when he downloaded the JSTOR docs. He was taking control of content with the intention of setting it free.
Swartz bought public domain court documents from PACER and shared them on the RECAP archive under a Creative Commons license. The license allows the public to do two things: reuse the content with attribution, and basically, do anything except make it not free.
There's no shortage of licenses for free and/or open software and more than enough advocates of each type to ensure a good fight if you want one. Stephen Walli, technical director of Outercurve Foundation, has assembled an overview of the open-source licensing landscape. The combinatorials of license types in a project that uses open-source content can quickly overwhelm a development team. The shortcut is to have an IP lawyer on your team. Swartz befriended many legal experts as well as developers in his quest to keep the Internet open.
In a complex and fast-moving development environment, keeping track of all open-source components can exceed the capacity of a project team. License management products such as those provided by Black Duck Software, WhiteSource, and others can automate compliance reviews. The Free Software Foundation offers tools and guidance as well.
For developers, there are matters of principle, but also practice. The details of open-source licensing can be tricky, so that even the best can have trouble with what seems like simple stuff. In Swartz's html2text project, one GitHub reviewer noted
a missing GPL3 module.
After a bit of discussion, Aaron asks for help.
It gets worse
We're seeing the control issue arise in new places. The developers who created Barack Obama's campaign package claim that program, built on open-source products, should be returned to the open-source community both for its historical importance and its overall utility. The Verge reports, however,
that political operatives in the Obama campaign would rather shelve the Obama for America software than make it available as open-source.
Meanwhile, under the DMCA, you are no longer assured of the right to unlock the phone -- the one you own -- without the permission of the your cellphone carrier. The EFF clarifies the nuances of this change.
"Success comes from growing"
When we see the seemingly relentless efforts of governments and businesses to stifle freedom, it's easy to become discouraged.
In his Raw Nerve series of blogs, Swartz wrote about the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Her research on children's behavior and attitudes shows two basic mindsets, what she called Fixed and Growth. Swartz calls them Fixies and Growthers. Those with a fixed mindset are eventually stalled when confronted with increasingly harder challenges while those with a growth mindset shake off the failure and keep moving forward.
"In the growth mindset," Swartz wrote, "success comes from growing. Effort is what it's all about -- it's what makes you grow. When you get good at something, you put it aside and look for something harder so that you can keep growing.”
Swartz confessed to his innate fixed mindset. "Growth mindset," he and his partner would exhort each other when times got tough, seeing the challenge as an opportunity to grow.
The original Dweck article that Swartz cites is, alas, behind a paywall.
— Karl Hakkarainen , owner and principal consultant at Queen Lake Consulting, is an IT consultant and tech writer. The firm focuses on web, application, and system support; social media development; support and training; and technical documentation.