Reddit Genius Arrested for JSTOR Downloads

Aaron Swartz has been arrested for downloading too many academic journal articles.

Now, here’s a story you don’t see every day: someone arrested for downloading too many academic journal articles.

Ars Technica (“Former Reddit co-owner arrested for excessive JSTOR downloads“):

Aaron Swartz, the 24-year-old wunderkind who co-authored the RSS specification at age 14 and sold his stake in Reddit to Condé Nast (which also owns Ars Technica) before his 20th birthday, was arrested Tuesday on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, “unlawfully obtaining information from,” and “recklessly damaging” a “protected computer.” He is accused of downloading 4.8 million documents from the academic archive JSTOR, in violation of its terms of use, and of evading MIT’s efforts to stop him from doing so.

Swartz is a founder of the advocacy organization Demand Progress. In a statement, Demand Progress executive director David Segal blasted the arrest. “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library,” he said. Demand Progress also quoted James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University, who said that the arrest “undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles.”

According to the complaint, Swartz purchased a laptop in September 2010 and registered it under the name “Gary Host” (username: “ghost”) on the MIT network. He then ran a Python script that rapidly downloaded articles from the JSTOR. JSTOR detected the script and blocked his IP address. The complaint alleges that there followed a game of cat and mouse in which Swartz repeatedly changed his IP and MAC address to evade JSTOR and MIT’s efforts to block access. Swartz also bought a second laptop to speed up the downloading process. Finally, on October 9, JSTOR gave up and and blocked the entire MIT campus from using JSTOR.


The complaint alleges that “Swartz intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through one or more file-sharing sites.” But it offers no evidence for this claim. In fact, in a statement following the arrest, JSTOR acknowledged that “we secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed.”

Indeed, Wired reports that JSTOR, the alleged victim, has denied seeking Swartz’s prosecution.

This . . . makes no sense whatsoever. Even if we presume Swartz had some sort of malicious intent here–and there’s really no evidence of that–how is it a criminal matter rather than a civil one? At most, this would seem to be a tort–an infringement on JSTOR’s intellectual property.

Naturally, this also raises the broader question of whether academic research–the lion’s share of which is paid for by tax money–ought be private commodity. Certainly, the scholars who conduct it have some proprietary rights to it in order that they get the proper professional credit. Beyond that, though, it should really be in the public domain.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Not that I agree with this idea of prosecuting, but violating terms of use can be criminal if it involved property, like this does. Sounds like it is technically illegal, although a stupid thing to bring this much attention to. Reminds me of when the recording industry bankrupted those random file sharers… technically within their legal rights to do so, but stupid.

  2. Beyond that, though, it should really be in the public domain.

    And yet the war is being fought so far from that ideal.

  3. Dude, this is so old it borders on archaeological.

  4. Just D. Facts says:

    The Ars article is light on several details.
    – He brought JSTOR to it’s knees, multiple customers were unable to access it.
    – His actions caused MIT to be blocked.
    – He is[was] a -HARVARD- student. (Harvard, does, in fact, have JSTOR access.)

    He had been in a cat & mouse game with MIT ops for some time, and been trying to hide his actions. He knew that what he was doing was not on the up and up.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Christopher Bowen: Weird. Followed a link from Twitter and didn’t check the dateline. Not sure why it just went out today.

  6. Jib says:

    So given this is so old, how did it turn out?

    Not sure on private schools and research. State schools and research historically were in the public domain. It is what made Unix the dominate O/S in its day, all the hacks and improvements that were done at Berkeley, UCSD and others were in the public domain and free to anyone who wanted them. But I think all that changed in the 90’s when research become a profit center for universities.

    Because you know, free market is so much better than a bunch of hippies free loading off the work of …..well other hippies paid for with everyone’s taxes