The Boy Who Couldn’t Change the World: An Open Letter to Verso Books and The New Press

photo by Quinn Norton, taken on Feb. 9, 2008

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

~Aaron Swartz (1986–2013)

… open-access publishing is a brilliant way around the failure of academic and trade publishers to fend off corporatization and the consequent loss of quality (such as the ever-intensifying limits on page-length and reference apparatus) and even corruption. Open-access publishing also helps us to resist growing administrative and corporate attempts to interfere with academic intellectual property rights (… academics, unlike journalists, do not “work for hire,” and therefore legally retain the right to publish their own material as they choose)—unless, as so many scientists have done, we sign away said rights on behalf of the corporations funding our research. When taxpayer money is also used in such projects, the “public” university becomes yet another covert means of transferring wealth from taxpayers to private corporations. Openness cannot guarantee fairness (only because nothing can), but in these days of plummeting transparency, it seems both strategic and joyous to embrace it. Share what you know.

~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts

*UPDATE // 23 June 2016: Sean B. Palmer, the executor of Aaron Swartz’s estate, after securing the approval of Swartz’s circle of family and closest associates, and as a direct result of the gentle urging of staff and friends of both punctum books and Discovery Publishing, has appended to Aaron Swartz’s archived writings this notification — “Original articles on this site are CC BY-NC-SA licensed unless otherwise stated.” Palmer has also indicated in our correspondence with him that he will also be adding “a universal waiver allowing specific charitable commercial use” in the near future, once he works out the wording with legal counsel. We thus offer a huge THANK YOU to Sean B. Palmer and the friends and family of Aaron Swartz for this humane and forward-looking decision, and to all of YOU who supported punctum’s petition. Thanks also go out to Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed, the only reporter who cared enough to cover the story. The New Press and Verso Books UK never responded to our letter.

*NOTE // As of 5:00pm Pacific Standard Time on 25 April 2016 at West Campus Beach, Santa Barbara, California, this Open Letter has been closed for signatures. However, the Letter will remain permanently archived here and will always remain open for further comments. You might be interested to also read Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of this letter HERE, and Steven Berliner’s blog post “What’s Wrong with the Aaron Swartz Book” HERE.

25 April 2016

Dear Verso Books (UK) and The New Press,

On March 31st, Eileen A. Joy, punctum books’s Founding Director, posted on Facebook a meditation on Aaron Swartz and his legacy, vis-à-vis Verso’s blog announcement on that same day, “Pssst! Downloading Isn’t Stealing [for today],” that they were giving away for free for a limited amount of time the e-book edition of Aaron Swartz’s posthumously published writings, The Boy Who Could Change the World. We will share here what she wrote that day on her personal Facebook page —

I am thinking a lot about Aaron Swartz today, thanks to the fact that Verso has recently published a collection of his writings titled The Boy who Could Change the World. After “illegally” downloading thousands and thousands of MIT’s shuttered journals holdings (with a laptop hidden in a janitor’s closet) and making them freely available, and facing 35 years of jail time as a result of overly aggressive federal and university lawyers, Aaron committed suicide at the age of 26. The legacy he left behind at such a young age is breathtakingly immense — for starters, he helped to develop Reddit and with his mentor, Lawrence Lessig, he helped to create our Creative Commons. But some lessons never get learned. Today, there are three ongoing lawsuits against the founders of three open, online academic libraries — LibGen, SciHub, and aaaaarg — all of whom are vulnerably precarious in terms of their insecure employment (such as Sean Dockray, who while a graduate student founded aaaaarg as well as The Public School in Los Angeles). These three libraries were all founded to provide access to published academic work (books and journal articles) to vast numbers of people throughout the world with no access to institutional libraries but who are students and scholars nevertheless and who, without this access, would not be able to further their knowledge or careers. At the same time, publishers such as Elsevier, Informa/Taylor&Francis, and the recently merged Holtzbrinck-Macmillan-Palgrave-Nature Publishing Group-Springer, thanks to their bloated profit margins depending upon obscene subscription “packages” and “bundles” being forced down university libraries’ throats, have brought about a state of affairs whereby librarians within the University of California system, for example, must choose between books or journals. They can no longer afford both and some are calling 2016–2017 “ground zero” for the academic monograph as a result…. I am someone who, because I no longer have an official university job, can no longer access any university library holdings. Therefore, while working on an essay with Jeff Butcher about the Academic Jobs Wiki, I “illegally” downloaded an article by Lauren Berlant (“Cruel Optimism”) and a book by Marc Bousquet (How the University Works). If I had Swartz’s skills, I would hack into every journals database in the world and give it all away to everyone. I consider it an ethical imperative that more of us within the so-called Radical Open Access movement should work harder to make such a state of affairs as Aaron dreamed a reality (and a revolution is brewing thanks to selfless and heroic academics such as Martin Eve, who created, with Caroline Edwards, the Open Library of Humanities, or the folk behind Open Humanities Press, and even punctum books — shameless plug — and so on). It might require walking away from corporate publishers, resigning our positions as editors of journals published by corporate publishers, and taking our work elsewhere under different names (because corporate publishers take 100% of our copyright away from us — even the names of journals we dream up in the middle of the night belong to them). It might mean some of us resigning our academic positions or not pursuing traditional academic jobs, post-PhD, in order to devote all of our energies to building new platforms for more open and more creatively contoured dissemination of our research and writings. It might mean “turning pirate.” It might mean breaking the law, where the “law,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, is unjust. The “laws” of academic publishing, even within university presses, are becoming more and more untenable and unlivable for those of us who believe in the Public University and the ways in which that University contributes, as Aranye Fradenburg has written about so movingly (in her book Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts), to eudaimonia (in the Greek, the “good demon, or good spirit, within ourselves”), or more plainly, to our thriving and flourishing. The Public University, and all of its work and ideas, must be Open to All. Where it is not, and under the aegis of the Techno-Managerial Neoliberal University (as illustrated so well at Chris Newfield and Michael Meranze’s Remaking the University weblog), we have a moral obligation to steal back our own work and to make it freely available to everyone. Where the State, or the Nation, or the University Administrators, fail us in this endeavour, we must do it ourselves. There is no other way.

When Eileen went to download the book herself several days later, she noticed two things that bothered her:

1) that the book was not available for free download in North America, and

2) that the period for accessing the download was over and she had somehow missed the language on Verso’s blog post explaining that the giveaway was for one day only.

FIRST, it is disconcerting that the writings of one of Open Access’s fiercest advocates (who also committed suicide while under federal indictment for downloading a large number of academic journal articles from the JSTOR library) should be under any sort of interdiction at all, as regards their mobility, in whatever form, derivative or otherwise. Granted, the majority of the writings of Aaron’s compiled in these particular volumes (print and digital) are freely available via Aaron’s own weblog archives, and both of you may only be asserting your so-called “rights” over your uniquely edited and designed derivative versions of those writings (but please also see our fourth concern below, since it is possible that The New Press is also claiming “exclusive” rights over Aaron’s entire corpus of writings, or some portion thereof). Nevertheless, it is really dismaying to see Verso in particular run a blog campaign for this book that implies anyone downloading the Verso e-book for “free” after your one-day “giveaway” is “stealing,” especially since “Downloading Isn’t Stealing” is a direct nod to the title of a 2004 op-ed by Swartz, in which he wrote, “Even if downloading did hurt sales, that doesn’t make it unethical….We live in a democracy. If the people want to share files then the law should be changed to let them.” This is all further exacerbated, ironically, by the fact that one of the chapters in the book is Aaron’s “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” which the FBI used against Aaron in their ongoing case against him. Verso’s ad campaign was therefore in horribly bad taste at best and not at all in keeping with the spirit of Aaron’s own writings at worst.

SECOND, by applying copyrights to the derivative editions that ostensibly reserve “all rights” to the publishers and which also assert the “moral rights of the author” (more on which below), and by also cordoning off certain “regions” (sales and distribution-wise), both of you have decided not to honor the stipulation of the one Creative Commons license that Aaron himself seemed to have preferred (because it is the only one he ever appended to one of his own writings) — CC BY-NC-SA — which allows others to “remix, tweak, and build upon” work non-commercially, “as long as they credit [the original author] and license their new creations under the identical terms.” While you may have sought, and been granted, “permission” to republish Aaron’s writings from the “virtual executor” of his corpus, Sean B. Palmer, that does not obviate Aaron’s own wishes, as much as you can glean of those from his own testimony (which is copious throughout the volume itself, especially in the first section, titled “Free Culture,” and also on his blog, Raw Thought).

THIRD, e-books sold by Verso (delivered to purchasers as EPUB or MOBI files) come with this caveat: “Ebooks from the Verso website are watermarked and DRM-free, and will work on any of your devices — but they can’t be uploaded to websites or file-sharing networks.” Of course, the e-book actually is available on file-sharing sites such as Library Genesis (LibGen), in both EPUB and MOBI versions that can be easily downloaded for free, but according to Verso’s own more fully detailed “terms and conditions,”

Verso ebooks are free of Digital Rights Management (DRM-free), but are subject to the terms of this license. You own the file once you’ve downloaded it, and you can use it on any of your devices in perpetuity. It has visible and invisible watermarks, applied by Booxtream, which contain your name and email address. You are prohibited from uploading Verso ebooks to any website or file-sharing network, or in any other way making them available for distribution, sharing, copying, downloading, or reselling. Royalties from every sale will be paid to the author: if you’re reading someone else’s copy, then please buy your own license from Verso Books.

And what is really discomfiting about this watermark is that it “tags” each purchased e-book edition with a name + email address that can be used later to penalize (or prosecute) a reader-purchaser who may later upload the e-book file to a file-sharing service such as LibGen or aaaaarg. At the very least, Verso should remove this watermark from their edition of Aaron’s writings as it calls to mind, again, the federal lawsuit that threatened to put Aaron behind bars for a minimum of 35 years for “illegally” downloading JSTOR database files. Further, there is something called “the moral rights of authors” and because one of you, Verso, actually invokes them on the Copyright page in the e-book edition, we can only ask: Who is the “author” here? Is that not Aaron Swartz? Would Aaron believe his “moral rights” had been violated because copies of the e-book had been uploaded to file-sharing sites? Would he have appreciated his work being watermarked in this manner? This is doubtful in the extreme.

FOURTH, further digging has revealed to us that in August of 2014, Jed Bickman, Associate Editor at The New Press, contacted the CreateSpace Legal Department and also Adriano Lucchese, Editor in Chief at Discovery Publishing (see more full memorandums HERE), and invoked the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act 17, § 512, in order to request a “takedown” (from CreateSpace’s publishing platform and its distribution channels, such as Amazon and Ingram) of Discovery Publisher’s 2014 edition of Swartz’s collected writings, Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz (which edition is now available for free download in e-book format at The Internet Archive, where it has been tagged with a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license), which “takedown” did, in fact, occur. While CreateSpace indicated to Bickman that they do not involve themselves in third-party copyright disputes, they did remove the title from their “systems” and distribution channels (since its copyright was “in dispute”), which essentially killed Discovery Publisher’s print edition. According to Bickman, in his correspondence with Lucchese, Sean Palmer supposedly granted to The New Press the “exclusive right to reprint these materials [Aaron’s blog] in book form.” We say “supposedly” because Sean Palmer himself claims that he did not grant any “exclusive” rights to anyone, and if there is, in fact, a contract somewhere that demonstrates that he did, indeed, do this, we want to see that contract. And we want someone (anyone) to explain to us how this state of affairs could have come to pass. Moreover, what does The New Press mean by “these materials”? Just above that, Bickman references Aaron’s entire blog, Raw Thought, so are you asserting exclusive rights over the entire blog or just your derivative versions? We recognize the legal right that Palmer has to grant rights over Aaron’s intellectual property to other entities, under any terms and conditions he might devise, but all of this seems ethically and morally wrong in the extreme, given Aaron’s own activism on behalf of the Open Access movement. In 2009 he penned a blog post “Is the DMCA a Scam?” in which he argues that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is abusive, and earlier, in 2003 he wrote,

A copyright is an entirely negative right: it gives you no new freedoms, merely the ability to prevent others from something they would otherwise be allowed to do. It gives one individual (the copyright holder) full control of a whole market (the sale of their writing). This is a monopoly, something governments must protect us from.

Copyright is not a natural right, but merely an outdated invention from the era of the printing press. To call copyrighted works “intellectual property” corrupts thought, by subjecting those who want to replace the invention with a more effective one to nonsensical claims of “you’re stealing my property”.

To those who might point out that Aaron himself would have been in favor of the re-uses and re-publications of his writings, he certainly would not have approved of any “exclusive” rights over his writings, which he definitely would have wanted to remain open, so we would simply say that we doubt he would have been wholly in favor of the language both of you have employed on your copyright pages for the book, such as, “all rights [are] reserved” to the publisher (both editions), and further, “No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher” (New Press edition), and “The moral rights of the author have been asserted” (Verso edition). We believe that the language on the copyright pages purposefully sets up a forbidding (if even ultimately flimsy) barrier to access over material for which both of you really have nothing like a “sole” copyright, so why posture otherwise?

Then again, if we are mistaken, we will repeat: show us the contracts. We request permission to view any contracts between yourselves, and between The New Press and Sean Palmer. At the very least, all of this represents a disconnect not only between Aaron’s own activism on behalf of Open Access publishing and how you have both “legally” determined your own “rights” over the distribution of these two editions, but also between how both of you frame your rights in the text of the book itself and what may actually be a more nuanced (and possibly an even more open) arrangement as stated within the longer publishing contracts, which are hidden from public view. In addition to expressing our disappointment with both of you, we are asking for illumination on these points, especially because we have long admired both of you for your contributions to a progressively radical cultural-intellectual commons.

As publishers ourselves, we realize that economic sustainability for radically innovative and politically progressive presses who foster and cultivate what we call “intelligent matter” is a precarious situation (and we do consider both Verso and The New Press to be both innovative and politically progressive), and this is a situation that has many of us scrambling for creative and better long-term solutions, and one hopes we might do so more collectively, even. But here’s the thing: if neither of you — Verso nor The New Press — can see your way to figuring out how to make the archive of Aaron Swartz’s writings more widely available, while still managing to recoup your costs in bringing these writings out in beautifully designed, tactile editions (which, of course, requires financial expenditures), then we simply despair. But more than that, we at punctum (and elsewhere throughout the Public Academy and Para-Academy) are upset. We feel you have undermined the important and culturally valuable legacy (and memory) of Aaron Swartz. And while you may have labored with all good intentions to “compile” his work in elegant and mobile form, you have done so in a way that nevertheless asserts certain “rights” over that work as well as over its presentation and dissemination in these particular editions in a way that, if perfectly “legal,” is also intellectually and morally dishonest.

And therefore, to the directors of Verso and The New Press, we the undersigned are asking you to reverse and repair this unfortunate damage to the culturally significant legacy of Aaron Swartz in the following ways —

  • revise the wording on the colophons of all editions to better represent Aaron’s own (likely) wishes for how he would have wanted his work to be re-used, re-published, and re-disseminated, or to better represent what Aaron’s virtual executor Sean Palmer believes should be the copyright (or copyleft);
  • remove all watermarks from the e-book editions;
  • issue a public apology for Verso’s misleading blog campaign for the “free” download of the book, or at the very least, admit that the blog post announcing the one-day giveaway of the book was in obscenely poor taste;
  • reverse the “takedown” action against Discovery Publisher’s edition of Aaron’s collected blog writings; and
  • produce the full texts of all publishing contracts.

We would like to close by saying that we do not want to assume any bad faith on the part of any of the entities involved in the re-publication of Aaron Swartz’s writings — neither on the publishers’ side, nor on the side of the executor of Swartz’s literary estate (or, more specifically, Aaron’s “hard drive”). As a publishing house that locates itself squarely in the intellectual heritage of Aaron Swartz and his collaborators on the Creative Commons licensing project, we merely seek to address the incongruities between the initial publication of materials under a specific CC license (such as CC BY-NC-SA), or under Open Access terms and conditions more generally, and their re-publication under a variety of traditional copyright markers, including watermarking, the assertion of “moral rights” (such as in the Verso e-book), and the prohibition on re-publication of any portion of a work (such as is indicated in The New Press edition’s colophon and in their DMCA “takedown” action against Discovery Publisher’s print edition). Simply put, we would like more clarification as to how traditional publishing houses (whether progressively “leftist,” not-for-profit, or otherwise), which often aggressively act against file-sharing platforms and their users, regard the conflict that seems to have ensued in the case of these particular editions of Swartz’s writings between the stipulations of Creative Commons licenses and traditional copyright terms. More broadly still, we seek to challenge traditional copyright law, just as Aaron did himself when he was alive.

With best regards,

for punctum books >

Eileen A. Joy, Founding Director, punctum books, Santa Barbara, California

Chris Piuma, Co-Director, punctum books, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Co-Director, punctum books, Tirana, Albania

Dan Rudmann, Principal Director, Studium, Punctum Records, & Human Sciences, Austin, Texas

David Hadbawnik, Associate Director, punctum books, Kuwait City, Kuwait

Arthur Russell, Assistant Director, punctum books, Cleveland, Ohio

Andrew Doty, Editor-in-Chief, punctum books, Saint Louis, Missouri

Michael Munro, Associate Editor, punctum books, Edmonds, Washington

Paul Megna, Associate Editor, punctum books, Santa Barbara, California

Kristen McCants, Associate Editor, punctum books, Santa Barbara, California

Natalia Tuero, Associate Editor, punctum books, New York City, New York

PJ Lilley, Production Editor at Thought | Crimes (a punctum imprint), Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Maggie Williams, The Material Collective + Director, Tiny Collections (a punctum imprint), New York City, New York

Christian Hite, Managing Editor at Keep It Dirty (a punctum imprint), Los Angeles, California

other signatories >

Jen Boyle, Coastal Carolina University

L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, University of California, Santa Barbara

Bonnie Lenore Kyburz, Lewis University

Robert Lestón, NYC College of Technology, City University of New York

Jared Rodriguez, Northwestern University

Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

Katerina Kolozova, Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, American University in Skopje, Macedonia

Martin Paul Eve, Open Library of Humanities + Birkbeck College, University of London, London, United Kingdom

Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Ben Ambler, Arizona State University + TEAMS

Mike Smith, George Washington University

Deborah Madden, Institute of Design, Art and Technology, Dublin, Ireland

Asa Simon Mittman, California State University, Chico

Ed Keller, Parsons School of Design, The New School

Alex Mueller, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Miranda Merklein, Independent Researcher, Seattle, Washington

Holly R. Silvers, Elon University

João Florêncio, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Kathleen Biddick, Emerita, Temple University

Germán Sierra, University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

William L. Benzon, Independent Researcher, Hoboken, New Jersey

Jeff Shantz, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Margaret Hanzimanolis, City College of San Francisco

Eric Wilson, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Serpil Oppermann, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey

Marget Long, Artist, New York City, New York

Luca Ferrero, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Giancarlo Sandoval, The New Centre for Research and Practice

Lesley Curtis, Independent Reearcher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Julie Orlemanski, University of Chicago

Tom White, Birkbeck College, University of London

Craig Dionne, Eastern Michigan University

Benjamin D. Utter, Independent Researcher, Little Rock, Arkansas

Jamie Allen, Paul Boshears, and Bernhard Garnicnig, Editors, continent.

Jennifer Borland, Oklahoma State University

Daniel T. Kline, University of Alaska, Anchorage

Dorothy Kim, Vassar College

Scott Abbott, Utah Valley University

Haylie Swenson, George Washington University

Jeremy Trombley, University of Maryland, College Park

Juliet O’Brien, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Lisa Weston, California State University, Fresno

Gary Hall, Open Humanities Press + Coventry University, Coventry, United Kingdom

Zach Rivers, New York University

Martyn Hudson, Newcastle University, Newcastle, United Kingdom

Roy Christopher, University of Texas at Austin + University of Illinois, Chicago

Elena Loizidou, Birkbeck College, University of London

Erich Berger, Academy of Fine Art, Vienna, Austria

Slawek Krolak, Translator, Teacher & Student, Warsaw, Poland

Jeremy Fernando, European Graduate School + National University of Singapore

Laurie Finke, Kenyon College

Cheryl Lynn Jaworski, University of California, Santa Barbara

Nathan Kelber, University of Maryland, College Park

David Klausner, Emeritus, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Carla Leitao, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Erik H. Zepka, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Bishnu Ghosh, University of California, Santa Barbara

Anna Klosowska, Miami University of Ohio

Dan Hassler-Forest, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Karen Eliot, Automaton, Vancouver, British Columbia

Mary Beth Sullivan, Buffalo State College, State University of New York

Robert Craig Baum, European Graduate School

Ross Wolfe, Autodidact Crank, New York City, New York

Nina Paley, Artist + Free Culture Activist, New York City, New York

Julie Carlson, University of California, Santa Barbara

Mahnaz Marashi, SOAS, University of London

Kate Laity, College of Saint Rose, Albany, New York

Dona Kolar-Panov, Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities, Skopje, Macedonia

Maija Birenbau, Independent Researcher

Melissa Jane Hardie, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Surbhi Goel, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India

Jonathan Basile, Emory University

Steve Mentz, St. John’s University, New York

Holly Dugan, George Washington University

Lara Farina, West Virginia University

Mary Rambaran-Olm, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom

Adeline Koh, Stockton University

Benjamin Hiltzheimer, Attorney + Partner, Chetson Hiltzheimer, PLLC

Renata Lemos Morais, Deakin University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Karum B. Boughida, University of Rhode Island

Dianne Berg, Tufts University

Claire Colebrook, Pennsylvania State University

Catherine Grant, University of Sussex, Sussex, United Kingdom

Maija Birenbaum, Independent Researcher, Madison, Wisconsin

Chris Taylor, University of Chicago

Ricky Varghese, Psychotherapist + Advisory Editor, Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Prue Gibson, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Leah Benedict, Washington State University

Jeffrey Butcher, Oklahoma State University

Tessa Kostelc, English Teacher, Jeonju, South Korea

Becky King, Middle Tennessee State University

Nicklas Weis Damkjær, Copenhagen, Denmark

Alec Magnet, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Saulo Macedo, Universidade Federal Fluminense, Niterói, Brazil

Matt Bernico, Greenville College + European Graduate School

Dolsy Smith, George Washington University

Duane Rousselle, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada + European Graduate School

Stefan Keydel, Independent Researcher, Austin, Texas

Julie Orlemanski, University of Chicago

Kim H. Carrell, College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts

Erin Manning, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Ruth Evans, Saint Louis University

Adam Miyashiro, Stockton University

David Perry, Dominican University

Richard Grusin, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Robin DeRosa, Plymouth State University

Matthew A. Trobaugh, Montclair, New Jersey

Dot Porter, University of Pennsylvania

Ryan Anderson, San Diego State University

Marie Thompson, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, United Kingdom

Dana Luciano, Georgetown University

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Arizona State University

Sam Stimpson, London, United Kingdom

Sara Feldman, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Neepa Majumdar, University of Pittsburgh

Ira J. Allen, American University of Beirut

Ann Kottner, New Jersey City University

Bhaskar Sarkar, University of California, Santa Barbara

Cristina Venegas, University of California, Santa Barbara

Martin Vega, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

James L. Smith, University of York, York, United Kingdom

Tara McPherson, University of Southern California

Cheryl E. Ball, West Virginia University

Jonathan Forbes, University of California, Santa Barbara

Rick Godden, Tulane University

Deirdre A. Joy, Washington, DC

Lester K. Spence, Johns Hopkins University

Steven Ray, Photographer/Artist, San Francisco, California

John Walter, George Mason University

Megan Berkobien, University of Michigan

Robert McRuer, George Washington University

Alan Montroso, George Washington University

William Marshall, Dunedin, New Zealand

Elena Razlogova, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Samuel A. Chambers, Johns Hopkins University

Urvi Nagrani, Photographer, San Francisco, California

Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University

Abraham P. DeLeon, University of Texas at San Antonio

Shane Mayson, Washington, DC

Jonathan Hsy, George Washington University

Tristan Clutterbuck, Queen’s University Belfast, Ireland

Rachel Levinson-Emley, University of California, Santa Barbara

Elizabeth Randall Upton, University of California, Los Angeles

Huw Griffiths, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Kevin Kiernan, Emeritus, University of Kentucky

Giacomo Pezzano, University of Turin

Martin E. Rosenberg, The New Centre for Theory and Practice

Christina Victoria Cedillo, University of Houston-Clear Lake

Valerie Vogrin, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Amy L. Friedman, Temple University

Carla Freccero, University of California, Santa Cruz

Caroline Edwards, Open Library of Humanities + Birkbeck College, University of London, London, United Kingdom

Amelia Freduomo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Rebecca Gould, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom

Serena Anderlini, University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez

Michael J. Kelly, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Michael McLaughlin, Saint Leo University

James Estes, Library Director, Wesley Theological Seminary

Andrew Jackson, London, United Kingdom

Masroor Bukhari, University of Houston

Sheridan Phillips, European Graduate School

Nedda Mehdizadeh, University of California, Los Angeles

Alexandra Karakas, Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest, Hungary

Michael Safranek, Liverpool, United Kingdom

Asher Lewis, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

Seumas R. Coutts, European Graduate School

Diego Fernandez Vega, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Jackie Hendricks, Santa Clara University

Beth Cooper, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom

Martin Winslow, University of Illinois at Chicago

Carolyn Guertin, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Karina F. Attar, Queens College, City University of New York

Una McIlvena, University of Kent, Kent, United Kingdom

Chris Alexander, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York

Martin Goffeney, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Edward Greig, Printer / Free Book Authoring Software Developer, Decatur, Illinois

Gökhan Turhan, Istanbul Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey

Hale Turhan, Istanbul Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey

Trevor Jones, San Diego, California

Jacob Siefring, George Washington University + McGill University

Tim Becker, University of New Mexico

Tom Sparrow, Slippery Rock University

Snezana Zabic, Chicago, Illinois

Jonathan Kemp, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, United Kingdom

Katherine Behar, Baruch College, City University of New York

Marina Zurkow, Interactive Technology Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

Michael D. Snediker, University of Houston

Adriano Lucchese, Discovery Publisher, New York City, New York

Teresa Numerico, Roma Tre University, Rome, Italy

Leopold Lambert, The Funambulist Magazine, Paris, France

Joseph Nechvatal, Artist, Paris, France

Michael Curtin, University of California, Santa Barbara

Christine Neufeld, Eastern Michigan University

Heather Bamford, George Washington University

Christian Beck, Central Florida University

Claudio Fogu, University of California, Santa Barbara

Daniel O’Connell, C.S. Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan

Sakina Bryant, Sonoma State University

Bob Stein, Institute for the Future of the Book, New York City, New York

Sherrin Frances, Saginaw Valley State University

Edmond Caldwell, Boston, Massachusetts

Angela R. Bennett, University of Nevada Reno

Matthew Evan Davis, Independent Scholar, Laguna Hills, California

Spencer D. C. Keralis, University of North Texas

David Gersten, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Joseph Derosier, Northwestern University

Isaac Linder, European Graduate School

Sergio C Figueiredo, Kennesaw State University

Louis-Georges Schwartz, Ohio University

Mae Kilker, University of Notre Dame

Zachary McDowell, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Henry Warwick, RTA School of Media, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Liza Blake, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Leila K. Norako, University of Washington, Seattle

Paige Alfonzo, University of Denver

Rosanna Cantavella, Universitat de València, València, España

Lowell Duckert, West Virginia University

Sherri Barnes, University of California, Santa Barbara


192 thoughts on “The Boy Who Couldn’t Change the World: An Open Letter to Verso Books and The New Press

  • The author has the agency to place commercial restrictions on reuse of his work. It speaks to the beauty of the Creative Commons and the conditions under which the author can choose to permit reuse. When sharing his work so generously online, could you provide an indication that it was Aaron’s intent that it be under additional restrictions such as non-commercial, no derivatives, or share alike? If so, I recommend adding that to your plea as it would become more powerful.

    My other thought is that Lawrence Lessig provided the introduction to this collection. I don’t know him, but I find his work honorable and respectable and would like to think that he thoughtfully considered these issues before agreeing to contribute.

    • Dear L Marie: I’m not sure I entirely understand the concerns & questions you express here, but let me try in good faith. First, Aaron is dead, so he had no control over the publication of these writings of his, as far as we know (if we’re wrong, someone will hopefully correct us). Also, these writings do not carry a Creative Commons license (highly ironic, I might add, given both Aaron’s and Lawrence Lessig’s roles in creating those licenses). We at punctum use the CC licenses and we allow authors to choose whichever license they feel best suits their own purposes; our default license is CC BY-NC-SA. We are *not* sharing his work online; that is not what we are doing here. More specifically, we are questioning why The New Press and Verso have published his writings under highly restrictive (even competitive) copyrights. The copyright on the Verso edition belongs solely to Verso (with Sean B. Palmer indicated as the “author” on the Copyright Page). I am also troubled that Lessig wrote the Introduction to the book. I hope he will step forward to explain why.

      • Thanks, Eileen. Can anyone shed some light on whether or not Aaron deliberately chose not to assign a CC license to his writings? For instance, he addresses NC in the first piece reproduced in the book (“Counterpoint: Downloading Isn’t Stealing”, but I wonder how he thought NC pertained to his writings. We could chalk it up to irony, but reuse was a central theme and I’m pushing a little further to ask people more in the know than I.

        The book prominently displays the hyperlinks to the freely available posts, which also include additional points written by Aaron in the comments sections. If my printer cartridge is low on ink I could buy the print book or if I prefer the extra formatting for my ereader I could buy the epub, but I don’t have to buy the book to access Aaron’s writings because he shared them online, for which I’m grateful.

        • L. Marie: again, some confusion here for me re: your question(s), because Aaron was not involved in assigning *any* licenses to his own writings, as they were published posthumously and someone by the name of “Sean B. Palmer” appears to be the person who handed over the copyright to The New Press and Verso. HOWever, if Aaron entrusted his writings with Sean before his death and specifically said, “do X with my writings once I am dead,” and X = hand them over to presses who will publish them in CLOSED (not OPEN) form, then someone please come forward and say so. Although I would be surprised, but there is a LOT we don’t know about how this book was put together. It’s true that Aaron’s weblog is still available to peruse, and some of the writings comprised in this book are accessible there, but some are not (such as The “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto” — oh, the irony!). Of course, it always helps when a publisher gets hold of someone’s writings and are able to “curate” those writings in elegant copy-edited/typeset/designed form. This can be preferable, and even more “portable” than what is simply online, where those writings are also vulnerable — the print book is a hardier archive for Swartz’s legacy. Which is why I am expecting “better” from the Presses on this score.

          • Eileen: Thanks, once again, and apologies for the confusion. To clarify, I’m skeptical that Aaron did not consider reuse of his work when he published it; he thought deeply about sharing and its consequences. Even if he chose to be ambiguous, this may have also been intentional. But my skepticism and guesswork are just that, so I’m seeking input from others who may know if Aaron intended to place restrictions on reuse of his work.

            The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (July 2008) was published unsigned The Internet Archive captured it on September 2008 ( and its “(cc) share and enjoy.” It was indeed shared and reproduced numerous times, including in this new book. Again, this is the beauty of CC and a beautiful legacy. It’s sharing your work and not placing barriers on reuse. It’s the courage to let go of control and of your role as judge and arbiter of whether the reuse is worthy or acceptable. It’s self-awareness that recognizes that you cannot imagine all the different ways your work will be reused and built upon. It’s opening possibilities rather than stifling them.

            Is this book a “betrayal” that might result in “spinning in one’s own grave”? Your efforts provide a path toward answering this question and also provide a path toward answering the copyright questions. Thank you for your meaningful and important efforts. Please note that a quick web search returned Sean B. Palmer’s webpage ( that includes a contact email address.

        • Marie, Eileen, I believe that most or all of Aaron’s writings were originally published with CC licenses. (see my post below) Those licenses cannot be revoked, but the current copyright owner has the right to license them again under different terms. So for example, if Aaron used an NC license, you would not be allowed to profit from the work without the permission of the current rights holder.

          • Thanks for these further thoughts, Eric, although they also beg the question: who is Sean B. Palmer, and exactly how/why did he grant the copyright for these writings to The New Press and Verso?

        • And further thoughts: if the book itself point to URLs where parallel versions of Aaron’s writings are openly accessible, then what does it mean to assert on the Copyright page that *all* rights are reserved to the Publisher, and further, “No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher”? And I would also like to know: who is profiting from sales of this book? Are any of the proceeds from the volumes going to causes Aaron cared about? Etc. Etc. Many questions, and so far: no answers.

  • Eileen Joy – before posting a j’accuse, you really ought to have done a little bit of background investigation. Sean B. Palmer isn’t anyone mysterious as you suggest – he is an old friend of Aaron’s, whom Aaron asked to act as his virtual executor in the event he got hit by a truck, way back in 2002-2003. If you’d just googled “Aaron Swartz” and “Sean Palmer” you’d have been able to find this out very easily – e.g. I can’t and won’t speak for him – we’ve had one email conversation and I don’t know him further – but he’s not that hard to track down

    Why didn’t you do a quick google search, email him, and ask for his perspective before publishing a piece and subsequent comments which suggest that he’s some shadowy figure who is traducing Aaron’s legacy? It seems the minimally responsible and decent thing to do. Specifically, if you are going to intimate that someone is aiding and abetting in betraying the memory of a dead friend of theirs, you very much owe it to them – and to your readers – to be sure that you are right before publishing.

    I _can_ speak for myself, as someone who contributed a very short memorial piece on Aaron (which the publisher’s contract gave me explicit permission to repost on my own website – ) to the book, and as someone who helps run a blog that Aaron occasionally contributed to. We aren’t sure whether we have any rights to the stuff that Aaron wrote for us (beyond the minimal rights to publish it, which he granted by sending it to us), and we haven’t ever bothered to find out, since we wouldn’t want to restrict others from disseminating his writings. Hence, when the publishers of this book asked us for permissions, we made it clear that we didn’t know whether we had any rights at all, but that if we did have rights, we were waiving them. We did this because we’re pretty sure that this is what Aaron would have wanted us to do. We would say the same to anyone – whether commercial or non-commercial – who came to us asking for similar permissions.

    As to what Aaron would have thought of the book, I don’t know. He isn’t around to tell us. What I do know is that there’s a plausible (and indeed – to me extremely likely) alternative to the accusation that you have laid out – that the rights that have been granted to the publisher are non-exclusive, allowing for his work to be disseminated through future collections or in other ways.

    The standard that you lay out, under which there is something that has gone badly wrong unless Aaron specifically gave instructions to “hand them over to presses who will publish them in CLOSED (not OPEN) form” seems wrong-headed. This suggests that any commercial republication of what Aaron said is ipso facto against his preferences, which is a claim that would require some considerable evidence to establish.

    More broadly, the Creative Commons Licenses that Aaron helped Larry Lessig and others create provides, among other possibilities, for licenses that only allow people to republish material for non-commercial purposes. If Aaron had licensed his work under a CC-NonCommercial license, or indicated his preference that his work only be published for non-commercial purposes, then that would be one thing. But if he did so, I certainly never heard it, and it would be surprising, given one conversation we had.

    The short version – I think you are making some very strong and potentially personally offensive claims in this post and your follow up comments, which don’t seem to me to be grounded in publicly available evidence. I would be very surprised to learn that this book has locked all of Aaron’s work away behind the walls of copyright – but if this is what you believe has happened, I really suggest that you do the _bare minimum_ of background investigation to make sure that your belief has some evidence to back it up, before making public accusations.

    • Dear Henry — thanks for your commentary here, although please don’t ascribe opinions to me that I do not actually possess, although I always think online media are difficult communication platforms because tone, for example, is not always easy to read and therefore I can see where you might have reasonably, yet wrongly, assumed that I am claiming that Sean Palmer is somehow “a shadowy figure” who is “traducing” Aaron’s legacy — I don’t think that at all, and I don’t say that, okay? That’s patently absurd, so please refrain from “reading” things in my comments that are actually not there. I just can’t find anything (at least, not online) that explains anything about Sean’s specific role vis-a-vis Aaron’s posthumously published writings, and yes, I looked, and yes, I found an email contact for him, and yes, eventually I *do* plan to contact him, but it does not affect the main content of our letter — in fact, he only came up in the comments here, right? We have nothing critical to say about Sean in our letter — indeed, we discussed it and decided to refrain entirely from making any assumptions about how rights were granted to the the two presses since that is not actually our main concern. But since it is his name after the copyright symbol in both editions of the book, I assume he granted certain rights to the both publishers and I am simply asking for illumination on that, from anyone, the presses or Sean himself or whoever. I have a right to ask those questions, especially as someone whose entire ethos as an open-access publisher has been profoundly shaped by Aaron’s work and activism.

      Secondly, you are absolutely correct that there may be clauses in the longer, more explicit contracts that Sean (or whoever) signed that allow republication under certain, or no real specific, conditions, and that’s great, if that’s the case, but why doesn’t someone at either press just say so? It would be the easiest thing in the world to simply say out loud. The fact that they asked Crooked Timber for permission is just standard operating procedure, of course, and I agree with L. Marie that Aaron may have been fully in support and favor of anyone re-publishing his work any time and anywhere and in whatever format — after all, that is in the spirit of the Creative Commons licenses which he helped to create. And all of this leads me to precisely the same conclusion I have already reached, and will not shift position on —

      1) that it was sublimely “cheap” and miserly (and almost comically ironic) for Verso to give the e-book edition away for free for one day only;

      2) that it is ethically wrong (although perhaps legally defensible) for The New Press to block Verso’s ability to give that e-book edition away for free in certain regions (in this case, North America); and

      3) that it is further ethically wrong for both books to carry language on the copyright page that implies they have reserved “all” rights over the writings to themselves.

      Of course, that’s the “writings” as they appear (proofed, copy-edited, typeset, designed, packaged, distributed, etc.) in these particular editions which these two presses have gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to produce, and I am sure Aaron would, again, as L. Marie keeps insisting, have been very open to multiple re-uses of his work. This is a subject, by the way, in which I am quite expert and learned (academic publishing, copyright /intellectual property law, etc.). But what would he have thought about the legal wrangling between The New Press and Verso regarding where these two editions of his writings are allowed or not allowed to be distributed, and in whatever forms? If I were to take the PDF of the book, which I actually have, and re-publish it, word for word, and in the exact same running order (but with our own in-house typesetting and design), as a punctum book, and then gave that PDF away for free, and donated the proceeds from the print edition to Demand Progress, or to Creative Commons, or a similar cause Aaron cared about? I would be breaking the law. If I am wrong, someone correct me. And that is why I am rightfully angry about this. Honestly, I wouldn’t have cared at all about the books one way or another if it were not for points 1, 2, and 3 above. If I am mis-reading anything that would cause me to reverse either of those points, I am very open to hearing about it, which is precisely why we have also left the letter open for comments and critique at, for a period of about 20 days, precisely — again — so that we get this absolutely right and are not making faulty judgments. Verso, honestly, just has a terrible marketing approach on this: they should have never given the e-book away for “free” for one day only and then announced that with a “tongue-in-cheek” slogan which was “borrowed” from one of Aaron’s writings included in the book (“Psssst! Downloading Isn’t stealing [for today]” — do we laugh or cry?). This simply underscored the miserly bullshit that is going on here, and also made explicit the legal arrangements between themselves and The New Press. If I were working at Verso, I would have stopped that campaign before it started (because it was just laughably stupid), and I would have also urged them to change the wording of the copyright on the copyright page of the book, and I would have also also urged them to just give the freaking PDF away for free and to recoup costs on the print book. Even publishers, especially ones as large and successful as Verso, have an obligation to engage in some philanthropy now and again, and they simply missed the boat on this one.

      I don’t, in short, think anything in the letter is offensive and we plan to even revise it before submitting final version (this version here is “dynamic” and shifts every time we get good suggestions for revision, such as from L. Marie, and the version at is static/archived, so that, now and in the future, anyone can compare both versions, as well as read all of the comments, because I believe in transparency and openness and also crowd-sourcing when it comes to op-ed-style letters — I think they’re better when tempered by commentary *before* they go out more formally). As to “bare minimum of background investigation,” I prefer asking the two presses in question directly, and we are waiting to hear answers. Why should we “investigate” things that should not be hidden/buried in publishing legalese to begin with? It’s absurd. We are asking questions, and if you or anyone else knows the answers, I am happy to hear them and emend this letter accordingly. My guess is the two presses will say nothing, unless they feel a certain pressure to do so. Hence, this letter. And on that score, I feel confident that Aaron would agree, because what we are asking for is both openness and well as a better sense of generosity. If Aaron really believed in the widest possible re-uses of his work, even in commercial format, he would have also wanted The New Press and Verso to re-license his writings under the same conditions. In other words, go ahead and make some money on this, but don’t restrict others from doing the same, and that is precisely what they are doing. In short, I know how to read a Copyright page and if The New Press is stopping Verso from distributing something in North America, I mean … seriously .. there is no way to misinterpret that.

      Finally, try to offer comments in a spirit of generosity, and not be such a scolder. After all, we both work on behalf of the Public University. And we both care about Aaron Swartz. I’ve never liked the argument “I knew him/X, therefore, I know stuff you don’t know, so you’re probably wrong, even though I don’t really know, either, but I still know more than you.” One reason I left the Academy was to get away from this sort of agonistic/antagonistic discourse. But having said that, I am actually super GLAD you took the time to make these comments as they actually helped me to see how we can underscore our primary points with more force and in ways I had not thought of before. So, thank you.

      • Here now, also, Henry, and L. Marie (and anyone else who would be interested), is the full transcript of my exchange today with Sean B. Palmer, which I initiated thanks to your proddings to do so —

        Query re: Aaron Swartz, “The Boy Who Could Change the World”
        3 messages

        Eileen Joy Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 2:44 PM
        Cc: “”
        Bcc: Eileen Joy

        Dear Sean —

        we do not know each other, but I am hoping you can help me with some questions regarding The New Press’s and Verso’s recent publications of Aaron’s collected writings, “The Boy Who Could Change the World”? I am a former university professor (specializing in medieval literature and cultural studies) who resigned a tenured position in 2012 in order to run an independent, open-access, para-academic press: punctum books, which you can see more about here [and I am cc’ing here my co-director, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei] —

        And more about me here —

        Aaron Swartz has long been a leading light in my life, and although I never knew him personally, he helped to create the world in which it became possible for me and my colleagues to found our press and to also continue his activist work on behalf of Open Access as best we can. I am writing because I was dismayed to see Verso Books advertise a one-day giveaway of Aaron’s writings, with the tag-line, “Psssst! Downloading Isn’t Stealing [for today],” which kind of took me by surprise. I mean: is this a joke [more specifically, the “for today” part]? And then we learned that we could not download the book in North American because The New Press was blocking Verso from being able to do that. Moreover, when I got my hands on a PDF of the book, I see that “all rights” are reserved to the publishers and they explicitly also say, “No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher.” Which I do not understand since many of the writings contained in the book are also available and fully accessible online, and the books include the URL addresses.

        Can you please shed some light on what is happening here, since you are listed in both editions as the ostensible “rights holder”? I know that Aaron entrusted you with his writings, but this all really seems to fly in the face of Aaron’s own work (and sacrifices) on behalf of open access publishing, but perhaps we are missing something? We have written an open letter to both presses which will be open for comment, corrections, and signatures for another 17 or so days. We have pinged the presses repeatedly on Twitter, but they are (maybe) ignoring us?

        Any light you could shed on this matter would be most appreciated.

        Yours, Eileen

        Eileen A. Joy

        Sean B. Palmer Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 3:31 PM
        To: Eileen Joy
        Cc: “”

        Hi Eileen,

        As far as I know, Verso is the UK publisher who are handling the book.
        So you probably can’t download the Verso (UK) PDF in North America
        because that’s where New Press (New York City) operate? That’s a
        question for the publishers though.

        As for rights being reserved to the publishers, as far as I understand
        it they own the “compilation”, whatever that means. Stuff like the
        cover art, sequencing, typesetting, and the editorial aspect I think.
        Those are the aspects that took them time and money. They want the
        book to do well, with the profits going to charity.

        Aaron did bequeath his share of the content to me, and that content is
        available on his website, just as it was when he was with us. So I
        don’t really understand why there is a PDF in the first place, the
        HTML is more accessible. But I figured that the book itself was a nice
        beautiful and tactile item for people to have.

        On the “no part of this book may be reproduced” part, I guess that’s
        boilerplate? Some of the book is Creative Commons, and the front of
        the book also states that, right by that statement. So do apply common

        To be clear: all of Aaron’s works are in exactly the same state as
        when he was alive in terms of copyright and licensing and so on. I
        haven’t touched his decisions in that regard. Prior to the New Press
        arrangement, I was asked to permit SecureDrop to be released. I
        thought it could have been released without my permission, because the
        code was GPL licensed, but expensive lawyers begged to differ. So I
        told them to go ahead.



        Eileen Joy Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 4:26 PM
        To: “Sean B. Palmer”
        Cc: “”

        Dear Sean —

        thanks for such a speedy response; as a publisher myself, I am very empathetic to other publishers, even the more “open” ones, wanting *some* claim of ownership over, as you term it, the “compilation.” Although at punctum, we don’t claim any sort of copyright at all over the work we publish. Everything both reverts to the author and is also available to anyone “out there” who wants to re-use, re-publish, re-mix, etc., although we do ask that they not do so for commercial gain without asking either us or the author, although at that point, we are more of a go-between, or advocate, for the author.

        Everything you are telling me here is much of what I assumed might be the case, and again, as a publisher, I do believe in books as “beautiful and tactile” items and we put a lot of work into that ourselves, while also giving away pretty much everything for free after a certain point (our PDFs are “locked” for 6 months, during which time they cost $5.00, and afterwards, they are 100% open and download-able). I can only view the copyright page of The New Press edition, which I have a PDF of, so I have not been able to eyeball the copyright page of the Verso edition (it is not accessible where I am), so if you were able to send me a “snap” of that, that would be great. I don’t want to beat up on Verso too much if they have made the copyright terms more clear/lucid in their edition. And “boilerplate” or not, I guess I remain disappointed at the way in which Verso offered the e-book for “free” for one day, while implying that getting one’s hands on it afterwards would amount to “stealing” [plus they watermark their e-books so that they cannot be uploaded to file-sharing platforms] — I get that they are just trying to protect their “investment,” but at punctum we have a lot of “investments,” too, but we don’t do this sort of thing. I remain somewhat dismayed by, at the very least, their tone-deaf marketing techniques. And if they *are* donating profits to charity, they should say so, and which ones. I know The New Press is a non-profit entity, but I believe Verso is for-profit. I am still trying to sort out my own feelings about this since both The New Press and Verso are presses I typically admire and we even share some authors and editors. I just think their handling of this particular release a bit clumsy at best, and (perhaps) somewhat unethical (or misleading/not in the spirit of Aaron’s own ethos) at worst. Thanks again for responding.

        Yours, Eileen

        Eileen A. Joy

        • Eileen: Immense thanks for posting the illuminating and gracious exchange between you and Sean Palmer. Love it! Some questions for the publishers remain, but your embrace of and engagement with the messy world of open access (as characterized by Janneka Adema) is appreciated.

        • From this illuminating exchange, I am left wondering what the point of the original missive is now? It is clear that Verso and The New Press negotiated correctly and legally with the executor of Aaron Schwartz’s writings for their own edition, that Aaron’s writings remain available for all, etc. etc. Wouldn’t it be better for Punctum Books, rather than railing against two very fine presses, to instead simply publish their own open access edition of Aaron’s writings and release that freely? It seems as though Punctum Books would have the right to.

          • Dear M. Corlis: thank you for your comments here; we are truly heartened to have some real give and take in these discussions. I would much rather spend my (activist) time, believe me, railing against giant commercial publishers such as Elsevier or Informa/Taylor & Francis, etc., which I actually *do* spend a lot of time doing (smile). Unfortunately, as much as I also admire these “fine” presses (Verso and The New Press), and while they may be perfectly within certain “legal” allowances/limits, some of what they have done (advertising campaign-wise, in the case of Verso, and colophon/copyright wording-wise in the case of both presses, and the watermarking of the e-book, again in the case of Verso, are simply not within either the spirit or even the dictums of Aaron’s own writings on the subject of Open Access). In further conversation with Sean Palmer (the executor of Aaron’s writings), I have learned that Aaron’s preference (although he didn’t always say, but when he did, it was) for the slightly restrictive CC license BY-NC-SA, which means he was not necessarily in favor of derivatives that would be produced for commercial purposes, and in the case of derivatives, period, he would have favored the derivatives carrying the same license, which neither of these two presses have done (although perhaps the “boilerplate” on their respective colophons are just that? either way: the language is misleading at best and not at all in the spirit of Aaron’s own wishes at worst). There is something called “the moral rights of authors” and either comically, or semi-tragically, depending on how you look at it, Verso actually invokes them on the Copyright page in their e-book edition, by which they are saying: if you upload this to a file-sharing site, you are violating the “moral rights” of the author (they say this more directly on their website under “terms and conditions” of purchasing their e-books). Who is the “author” here? Is it not Aaron Swartz, as well as the other contributors to the volume, all of whom either worked alongside or were inspired by Aaron Swartz? In short, my problem is not about “legalities,” and just because something is legal does not make it “right.” I cannot share all of my now 14-email exchange with Sean Palmer, but he did allow me to share his conclusion after ruminating all of the facts and “appearances,” and I will quote him here:

            “Today I will ask the publishers on your behalf to remove the watermarking from the Verso ebook version. I will argue for improved colophon wording, and I will criticise the advertising campaign.” [email communication from Sean B. Palmer, 13 April 2016, 2:09AM PST]

            We will be substantially revising this letter as a result of our exchanges with Sean and also with other interlocutors here, but we will also hold off sending the letter until after Sean hears back from The New Press, whom he contacted earlier today with our concerns. But mainly I just want to also say that this issue is not about what is “legal”; it really *is* about the “moral rights of authors,” but not in the way that Verso maybe intends that in their e-book edition. I do not care for the “law.” I care for what is right, but I can’t claim to always know what that is, either. Which is why I always crowd-source my/our letters, so that they can be made better and more fair thanks to the generosity of interlocutors such as yourself.

          • Thank you for sharing that Aaron’s preference was CC BY-NC-SA (although not ND, so derivatives such as translations would be allowed). This new collection, then, doesn’t honor Aaron’s preference, although another irony is the missed opportunity for clarity that applying a simple CC BY-NC-SA license to the writings when originally published could have provided.

            I respect and honor Aaron’s preferences for his writings, of course, but my proclamations of beauty in my 10 April comment only apply to unrestricted reuse.

          • Apologies. My focus on unrestricted reuse is somewhat off topic, but important. This Wired article better articulates the value that straight CC BY (versus NC, ND, SA) provides.

            “There’s no way anyone can know what research and data can reveal unless we set it free. Innovation can come from anywhere—not just academics—but only if we allow for a non-linear and unrestricted approach to inquiry and discovery.”
            “Works shared under a Creative Commons CC BY, or attribution license, for example, can be used in any way, so long as they are credited and linked back to the original author. CC licenses are the gold standard for open access to research, creating a global commons of content and data with over 1.1 billion licensed works that anyone can read, copy, and re-use. If the Web has achieved anything, it’s that it’s eliminated the need for gatekeepers, and allowed creators—all of us—to engage directly without intermediaries, and to be accountable directly to each other.”

            So why play gatekeeper with NC? Why not really set research free? There are at least 571,601 research articles floating around out there (just 124k NC, 79k NC-SA, 58k NC-ND source — have any of the doomsday scenarios about commercial use/misuse come to pass? Perhaps the Verso publication is an example of misuse, but (as in the Wired article) this Open Letter is a terrific example of engaging directly without intermediaries, of being accountable directly to each other.

          • Dear L. Marie: your continued interventions here really impress and hearten us here at punctum. To be honest, I pretty much agree with your enthusiasm relative to the use of CC BY, but I also worry a lot about how this can all be sustained economically. If we had government bodies here in the United States, for example, at both the federal and state legislative levels, that also believed that all publicly-funded research should be 100% open and accessible, and if they would put their money where their mouth is, we could achieve this truly wished-for utopia. This is more the case in the Sciences (as your link clearly indicates, pointing to National Institutes of Health), but in the arts & humanities there are literally no funding bodies (or next to none) that are willing to make this a possibility. In the meantime, some of us — such as me and my cohort at punctum — are looking to various strategies for long-term sustainability in the absence of government and even public institutional support, such as by our newly unveiled Graduated Open Access platform: It is our sincere mission to make everything we publish ultimately 100% accessible. We also want to give our authors and editors some say in which licenses they want to apply to their own work, because we actually believe in the “moral rights of authors.” Although our default license is CC BY-NC-SA, we have an in-house policy whereby we would NEVER pursue anyone who, let’s say, “violated” the terms of this license, and that has happened plenty and we’re, like, cool … whatever. But every now and then, we get approached by people who want to publish editions of our works in other languages and the like, and we like to enter into co-publishing relationships with them that benefit all of us: publishers and authors alike. And they approach us partly because of the NC clause, and we like to encourage them to co-publish with us within the CC model. The bottom line is: who will fund CC BY? Someone has to fund it, and we at punctum do not believe in article processing charges or book processing charges. We believe that charging authors to publish with us would be undemocratic and a hindrance to many authors who work within the arts and humanities where funding is scarce. If you follow the link above, you will see more of our philosophy and thinking on these matters. We are committed to a radically open cultural-intellectual commons and where the government and the universities have failed us (and they have), we will do what we can. If more individuals would support presses like punctum through donations and subscriptions, then I think your utopia is possible, and we are working on it. Thank you for engaging us critically in these conversations.

          • Eileen — the distinction you make is crucial and you have my full agreement. OASPA makes a similar distinction — again rightfully so. I’m embarrassed by my overreach. My only excuse is that my brain space is so mired these days by STM commercial publishers, who benefit from the OA model quite nicely just as they have from the subscription model. But for the arts and humanities, sustainability is indeed an issue and funding is scarce. It wasn’t so long ago that I worked at a university where humanities faculty were thrilled to receive just one course buyout from their teaching load to pursue a project or research. (And I recall being pleasantly surprised at how innovative the medievalists were!)

    • Henry: Thanks for sharing the details on your memorial piece and for shedding some light on my NC question. CC licensing offers clarity and simplicity in this messy, complex space, but it appears a few questions remain open.

      Eileen: I’m glad to see that the open letter may be amended so that it is presented in the spirit of inquiry and understanding rather than judgment.

      I personally don’t need to know if the publishers will use their profits to support a particular cause or to give their interns a raise, but I understand that others might like to know this before purchasing.

      As a librarian, I do care deeply that Aaron’s writings are preserved and that they remain accessible to all. This is why I’m grateful for the Internet Archive, which in the case of Aaron’s website, saved all the content (including the comments) 1,124 times between April 10, 2001 and April 5, 2016 (*/ Now that’s fantastic!

      Finally, while not related to the open letter, I’m sure we’re in agreement that it’s important to honor and respect any creator’s intentions. Thus, if the image of Aaron at the top of this post was used with the creator’s approval, that’s great. But if was scraped from the web, it appears that it requires attribution

      • Dear L. Marie: thanks for your comments here, as always. You will see, I hope, that revisions to the letter already bear your impress (as well as Henry’s), and I will fix the attribution of the photo (it is open access but with a request for attribution, so of course we can fix that). To be honest, the letter is probably going to represent a mix between “open inquiry” and what I guess I will call “disappointment” with the two publishers, which is not the same thing as judgment/condemnation, although I must be honest and tell you that in my own dealings with university, commercial academic, and independent “radical” publishers, that I am mainly dismayed. EVERY DAY. But we at punctum also believe in collective efforts at re-wiring the public dissemination of publicly-funded research and also the professional and institutional affects surrounding such — librarians, in fact, are chief allies of ours in this endeavour. And yes, L. Marie, hurrah for the Internet Archive! I have supported them for close to ten years now. Again: thank you for your interventions here. I, and the rest of us at punctum, are deeply grateful for the dialogue.

  • I support the letter and broader attempts to limit the capture of academic labor by the likes of Elsevier, In Forma, etc. Tara McPherson, USC, LA CA

  • They are not profiting from this book. It is being produced by the publisher on an at-cost basis and the profits go to GiveWell, Aaron’s favourite charity.

    Aaron’s estate holder (Sean B. Palmer, a close friend of Aaron’s) went to a lot of trouble to get this arrangement with the publisher. Indeed, any normal publisher would have balked at the changes he required before the publication of the book was allowed to go ahead. The New Press is commendable for doing this, even though the process was very hard for those behind it.

    • Dear David — thank you so much for your commentary here. Unfortunately, you are making insinuations that I have no ability to verify, especially because you are cloaking your sources and even your own (possible) relationship to The New Press and how/why you would know this. If you would like to make that more explicit, please do so: we would welcome that. Just as we would welcome either of the presses coming forward to correct what may be bad assumptions of ours. By saying, “…any normal publisher would have balked at the changes he [Sean Palmer] required before the publication of the book was allowed to go ahead,” without providing the more full context and sources for such knowledge is, at the very least, intellectually dishonest. But it may not even matter, to be honest — by which, I mean, to us here at punctum — because our 3 primary concerns (the badly-designed blog campaign, by Verso UK; the wording on the colophons, both presses; and the watermarking of the e-book, Verso) still stand, regardless of whatever behind-the-scenes maneuverings may have unfolded prior to the publication of these editions. And it remains troubling to us that neither press is responding to either our letter or even to Sean Palmer’s April 13th query to The New Press, affirming our concerns and asking for illumination. So why doesn’t either press simply come forward and explain whatever it might be that we supposedly don’t understand? Thank you, nevertheless, for your comments, because they helped us this morning to really clarify what our own concerns are, which really have to do with copyleft/copyright issues and our own immense debt to Swartz’s work and legacy. Therefore, we have added this closing paragraph to the letter —

      We would like to close by saying that we do not assume any bad faith on the part of any of the entities involved in the re-publication of Aaron Swartz’s writings — neither on the publishers’ side, nor on the side of the executor(s) of Swartz’s literary estate. As a publishing house that locates itself squarely in the intellectual heritage of Aaron Swartz and his collaborators on the Creative Commons licensing project, we merely seek to address the incongruities between the initial publication of materials under a specific CC license (such as CC BY-NC-SA), or under Open Access terms and conditions more generally, and their re-publication under a variety of traditional copyright markers, including watermarking, the assertion of “moral rights” (such as in the Verso e-book), and the prohibition on re-publication of any portion of a work (such as is indicated in The New Press edition’s colophon). Simply put, we would like more clarification as to how traditional publishing houses (whether supposedly progressively “leftist” or otherwise), which often aggressively act against file-sharing platforms and their users, regard the conflict that seems to have ensued in the case of these particular editions of Swartz’s writings between the stipulations of Creative Commons licenses and traditional copyright terms.

      • This thread has become confusing at best, disingenuous at worst. At this point, what exactly has The New Press and Verso done that is so deplorable, as Punctum has recently charged in a Tweet?

        According to Punctum, it boils down to “the badly-designed blog campaign, by Verso UK; the wording on the colophons, both presses; and the watermarking of the e-book, Verso.” Are we really being asked to sharpen our pitchforks for this? Verso and New Press appear to be operating within their rights, in agreement with Aaron Schwartz’s legitimate representative. It doesn’t foreclose non-commercial reuses of his work, which all still seems to be available online for anyone. And, any royalties garnered by these two nonprofit publishers will be donated to Schwartz’s charity. One may decide this is morally wrong, or against the author’s “wishes” or “spirit” of his work (though how to adjudicate that at this point is beyond me), but it is not illegal. If this is the molehill Punctum has decided to take a stand on, then might I suggest there are bigger beasts to slay.

        I remain enthusiastic about the idea of Punctum compiling, editing, and publishing its own open access, noncommercial volume of Schwartz’s writings, in which they would have complete control over such things as watermarks and colophons (and marketing blogs!). Unless of course Punctum’s publishing arm more interested in publishing scads of damaging innuendo online.

        • Dear M. Corlis: thanks, as always for your interventions here. I will be, however, somewhat abrupt in my response as you seem to be missing the biggest and most alarming facts here: you are absolutely correct that nothing “illegal” is afoot here; that being the case, why are both presses refusing to respond to journalists’ requests for more information? Why are you speaking on their behalf? This is no molehill; it actually is a mountain, and here is why: punctum, and ALL other publishers are legally prohibited from ever publishing ANY of Swartz’s writings because The New Press is claiming (and they have done so in writing to both Adriano Lucchese, Director of Discovery Publisher, and to CreateSpace’s legal department) that they have “exclusive” rights over Aaron’s entire corpus, which rights they are claiming were granted to them by Sean Palmer (they asserted this — again, in writing — in August 2015, and we include a PDF of those documents above: which are FACTS, and not insinuations). Sean Palmer is claiming he did not do this, and even if he did, it would have been in direct contradistinction to so much of what Aaron himself wrote and argued relative to copyright laws, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the like. I am absolutely livid about this and will not stop agitating over this until we can have a legal test case or the presses relinquish their supposed “sole” copyright. And by the way: I have no respect for Verso at all, and haven’t for quite a while now because of their aggressive watermarking and “takedown notice” practices. I have way more respect for The New Press, generally, but in this matter, they have lost all of my respect. If you could please respond to this and tell me how I am “wrong,” please: somebody: anybody: show me the proof! I want to see the contracts. You are saying you welcome a punctum edition: we are legally bound NOT to produce one. Do you see this now? I cannot even be calm about this unless someone : anyone shows me otherwise. I do blame the presses, then. I do. And perhaps also the executor, although I generally believe he may have been misled. Until he and the presses make more public statements about this, and clear the fog, I will not stop agitating about this. I am just crazy that way, but believe me when I tell you that I welcome all push-back against our letter, but supported by facts, please, and not innuendo. Our letter insinuates nothing. It only presents facts. We are not insinuating anything, and if we are, the good English teacher in me is asking you: specific examples, please? Details? Knowledge/facts that YOU have and WE don’t? Please. I seek answers and remedies. I am sincere in this: I seek answers and remedies. I don’t care about the presses themselves — in other words, I am not trying to harm them. They are, as of now, completely silent and they never responded to any of Adriano Lucchese’s anguished correspondence over their immoral “takedown” of his own edition. Does he not deserve at least a reply to his questions and concerns. In short, fuck these people; they have no ethics, OR their silence is protecting someone, or something. Just come clean, people, and then I’ll shut up. Where is the “truth in advertising” in all this? So, I guess I am not “brief” any more [laugh]. But seriously, keep pushing me, but please tell me something I don’t know! [smile]

  • In 2014 Discovery Publisher released “Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz”, an original and extended edition of what The New Press would only publish a year later. The New Press literally hijacked our concept and got our book removed from sales under exclusive copyright agreement after conspiring with Sean B. Palmer, Aaron’s IP “legal owner”. We’ve been fighting for over a year to have Aaron’s writings released under Creative Commons licensing, in vain. Eileen A. Joy from Punctum Books might very well succeed.

    • Aaron Swartz is to freedom of information what Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds are to free software. Allowing The New Press or any other entity to impose exclusive copyright on Aaron’s IP is just as unimaginable as copyrighting the entire GNU Software foundation or Linux.

      • I did not ask New Press to remove your book from sales, and in fact you knew about it before me. The news upset me.

        Aaron only used a non-commercial Creative Commons license on his website, and he regarded non-commercial sharing a good baseline. Your book was commercial, so New Press contacted you. Then you put your book online, which was a good outcome.

        New Press do not have exclusive rights to any of Aaron’s work, only to their own derivative elements such as their editorial contributions.

          • Thank you, I understand. I can only reiterate that I did not give New Press any exclusive rights over any of Aaron’s work. Nor would I ever do so. I will seek clarification with New Press over what they wrote in this PDF.

          • Discovery Publisher has just republished a not-for-profit revised edition of “Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz”, which should be out in a few days. In view of Sean’s latest comments concerning what Aaron would have wanted, the entire book content is copyrighted to Aaron in Non-Commercial CC. The book is a not-for-profit project. That is, the paper book price is set at printing cost + reseller/distributor’s cost + USD 1 (USD 1 is to cover small part of the publisher’s cost). The Kindle version is set to the lowest price, that is: USD 0.99 (of which Amazon Kindle Store earns USD 0.75). The Apple iBook version is set to the lowest possible price, that is: free of charge. The book can be also downloaded through the publisher’s website, free of charge. I will post the relevant links shortly.

          • Thank you for your precious help in getting things right, Eileen. I’m glad this publication is out as it should be. With 826 pages, it is today the most comprehensive collection of articles written by Aaron in paper form. The book is available on Amazon at and free of charge through (though it is still the first edition as we are in the process of updating the page). I will also post the Kindle and iPhone/iPad/iBooks links when published.
            Lastly, we’re working on a not-for-profit scaled-down version (probably 300-400 pages) of this second edition to be released in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese languages.

          • While browsing some of my old emails on this issue —right after The New Press filed the DMCA takedown notice— I’ve found out that Sean B. Palmer was actually CC’ed at a very early stage, that is, when I was explaining, with convincing evidence, that what The New Press was doing —claiming exclusive copyright on Aaron’s IP— was illegal and immoral. You may have a look at this file for more information: So the question at hand is, why didn’t Sean take this chance to stop The New Press at the time?

        • Hi Sean. If what you’re saying here is to the best of your knowledge, are you willing to send an email to Amazon in order to waive —the unlawful— DMCA takedown notice filed by The New Press in 2015?

          • Although we selected 300 out of the 1364 articles available on Aaron’s website, the resulting book is 826-page thick, divided into seven categories, i.e. Economics, Politics & Parody, Science & Stuff, Work & Tech, Education, Life, and a series of touching articles titled “Raw Nerve”, as well as the beautiful piece written by Robert Swartz, titled “Loosing Aaron”.

        • Hi Sean, for some reason, our newly published not-for-profit revised edition of Aaron’s book, “Raw Thought, Raw Nerve: Inside the Mind of Aaron Swartz” was removed from Amazon last night without notice. I’ve just sent you a private email requesting your help to write to Amazon to confirm you’re giving Discovery Publisher the same rights as you’ve given The New Press and Verso, that is: the right to publish Aaron’s work under not-for-profit and Non-Commercial Creative Commons licensing. As you know, Discovery Publisher was the first publishing company to publish/care about Aaron’s lifetime work before The New Press unlawfully claimed exclusive copyright and took down our book; also, as you’re well aware of, Discovery Publisher is NOT earning money from this operation. We’re doing it for what Aaron stood for, so FOR AARON’S SAKE, PLEASE DO THE RIGHT THING HERE: kindly respond to Amazon so the book can be re-enabled. THANK YOU.

          • Adriano — I personally find this news very distressing. I cannot speak on Sean’s behalf, but I do have very reliable evidence that Sean himself has both a) told The New Press to correct the impression (or statements of any kind) that indicate they have any sort of exclusive copyright over Aaron’s writings; according to Sean, they do not; and b) Sean himself has asked CreateSpace / Amazon to *reverse* their prior DMCA takedown action in August 2015 against Discovery’s edition of Aaron’s writings (“Raw Thought, Raw Nerve”). I am personally starting to feel real disappointment in The New Press and Verso Books, but not in Sean, who may be just as helpless as us in this matter — not in terms of being the ultimate copyright holder / executor — but in terms of how he himself is also not getting the info or “redress” he needs from the publishers. I probably shouldn’t say this publicly, but I’m driven to do it, anyway — I also know, for a fact, that The New Press has issued a press release in which they claim,

            “We are moved by the outpouring of concern about the work and legacy of Aaron Swartz, a concern that we share. The New Press is a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) book publisher that operates in the public interest. After the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, we felt that it would be useful to collect a selection of his writings in an accessible volume. We are proud to have published The Boy Who Could Change the World. We do not have, nor did we ever seek, exclusive rights to any of Aaron Swartz’s writings, only the permission to publish them in book form. We understood at the time and continue to support the decision that Aaron Swartz’s writing should remain online, freely accessible to all. All of the writings that Aaron Swartz placed on the Internet during his lifetime remain freely available online.”

            There are so many things both right and wrong (and overly, maybe even purposefully ambiguous) with this press release, that I don’t even know where to begin.

  • Here is a wonderful collection of Aaron Swartz’s writings and videos both of Aaron speaking and of talks at his memorial — in a format which enables readers to carry on detailed conversations in the margins. Any questions about how to use or share please contact me at

  • I support this letter wholeheartedly.
    Poor Aaron; this is the ultimate insult against his memory.

    Prof. Rosanna Cantavella, Universitat de València

  • As one who personally owns a good number of Verso books, and has read and admired their published output for decades, I am very disappointed in Verso’s position in this matter, and I strongly support the Punctum Books letter. Keven Larson, library worker.

  • I support this letter entirely and very sorry for being late — finalizing my graduate thesis.
    Let me know how I can help in the immediate future.

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