Arnt Gulbrandsen
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2013-01-13

Aaron Swartz and the Brazilian Playboy Magazine

Late last millenium, around the time when I decided that Playboy had stopped printing pictures of pretty women and started printing pictures of wax dolls, I discovered playboy.com.br, which was not yet a branch of Madame Tussaud's.

Naturally, being who I was, I put together a small self-modifying gnumakefile to download all the high-resolution mulheres pictures. I doubt Playboy wanted me to do that without spending time looking at the Portuguese text and low-resolution previews.

Later, after enjoying In Hospital by Cicely Herbert and W. E. Henley, I found a complete copy of Henley's poems on the net. I and copied that, too. Henley died 111 years ago, so by rights copying his works should be permitted. But who knows.

Still later, someone I worked for needed a completish copy of a database that was available on the web — in little pieces only. I spent a day or two writing and running perl scripts to scrape publicly available web pages, and then we had 85%, enough for our purposes. But the owner of that database might not have been amused.

Another time, a public transportation company made its route tables available online, although not in a really usable form. I scraped the site, re-generated the internal database, and did it better.

Quite recently, someone needed a database from a web site, but the terms of use prohibited complete copying, and the database owner didn't answer the phone. I noticed that Wikipedia had better access than we did, and suggested leveraging it by downloading Wikipedia and extracting the data from the relevant articles. (Haven't gotten around to doing it yet.)

And so on. I doubt there's been a single year since the initial creation of the web when I haven't in some way downloaded in bulk, evaded polity-based restrictions, used data in an unapproved manner, etc. I've acted contrary to Apple's policies, Google's policies, Amazon's policies and those of many other companies. As far as I know, never against the law, but who am I to know the law? Aaron Swartz's prosecutor wanted 35 years in gaol for copying a vast number of articles, articles which are available from my local library. (Update: Apparently downloading those mulheres may have been legal if the playboy.com.br web server was in Brazil at the time, but illegal if it was in the same rack as playboy.com. And some US prosecutors think they have juridiction over foreign users of US-hosted web sites.)

Lady Luck, acting through her servant, the US federal government, has been very unkind to Aaron Swartz. That's sad for Aaron, and sad for the rest of us, for a government should serve justitia, not fortuna.