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About The Book

This smart, “riveting” (Los Angeles Times) history of the Internet free culture movement and its larger effects on society—and the life and shocking suicide of Aaron Swartz, a founding developer of Reddit and Creative Commons—written by Slate correspondent Justin Peters “captures Swartz flawlessly” (The New York Times Book Review).

Aaron Swartz was a zealous young advocate for the free exchange of information and creative content online. He committed suicide in 2013 after being indicted by the government for illegally downloading millions of academic articles from a nonprofit online database. From the age of fifteen, when Swartz, a computer prodigy, worked with Lawrence Lessig to launch Creative Commons, to his years as a fighter for copyright reform and open information, to his work leading the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), to his posthumous status as a cultural icon, Swartz’s life was inextricably connected to the free culture movement. Now Justin Peters examines Swartz’s life in the context of 200 years of struggle over the control of information.

In vivid, accessible prose, The Idealist situates Swartz in the context of other “data moralists” past and present, from lexicographer Noah Webster to ebook pioneer Michael Hart to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In the process, the book explores the history of copyright statutes and the public domain; examines archivists’ ongoing quest to build the “library of the future”; and charts the rise of open access, the copyleft movement, and other ideologies that have come to challenge protectionist intellectual property policies. Peters also breaks down the government’s case against Swartz and explains how we reached the point where federally funded academic research came to be considered private property, and downloading that material in bulk came to be considered a federal crime.

The Idealist is “an excellent survey of the intellectual property battlefield, and a sobering memorial to its most tragic victim” (The Boston Globe) and an essential look at the impact of the free culture movement on our daily lives and on generations to come.

About The Author

Photograph by Molly Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. He has written for various national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Monthly, and Travel + Leisure, and was the founding editor of Polite, a general-interest print journal. An alumnus of Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, he divides his time between Boston and Brooklyn.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 12, 2016)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476767734

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Raves and Reviews

"Peters captures Swartz flawlessly."

– New York Times Book Review

"Riveting....Peters' book is a fascinating look not only at one of the Internet's most beloved whiz kids but also at the way copyright works and doesn't work in America today."

– Los Angeles Times

“We are lucky to have The Idealist, by the journalist Justin Peters. His account is part biography, part history of copyright law, and ultimately a cogent and readable précis of the life of a twenty-six-year-old genius who managed, over the course of a few years, to contribute to a lifetime’s worth of projects and initiatives.”

– Bookforum

"What [The Idealist] does—and does very well—is put Swartz’s work in context. The book gives an engaging, if knowingly incomplete, account of the history of intellectual property and copyright law, the archaic roots (and current implications) of cyberlaw, and some key players in the ongoing fight between open-data philosophy and the federal government.

– New Republic

"Peters’ new book is an excellent survey of the [intellectual property] battlefield, and a sobering memorial to its most tragic victim."

– The Boston Globe

The Idealist hefts its burden of research and explanation with flair. Perhaps the greatest service Peters performs, though, is giving us Swartz’s own voice on page after page: a private soul with a gift for friendship; an idealist but no innocent; restless, precocious, growing and learning."

– Intelligent Life Magazine

"Justin Peters is an immensely talented storyteller and The Idealist is an uncommonly good book—an ambitious, erudite, meticulously crafted work on a pivotal and tragic figure. The Idealist succeeds as biography, as history, and as narrative nonfiction."

– Evan Ratliff, contributing editor at Wired

"Justin Peters delivers not only an exceptionally crafted story about the life of Aaron Swartz but also a bold and important history of information policy in the Internet age. The depth of research and graceful writing makes the book compulsively readable. Everyone should read The Idealist, if only to better understand the mounting crisis America faces in the realm of digital rights."

– Adam Clark Estes, senior writer at Gizmodo

"Justin Peters masterfully narrates thestory of Aaron Swartz, who abdicated a life of privilege and convenience bychoosing the path of fiercely principled activism. A riveting read, The Idealist channels Swartz's inner demons, philosophical provocations, and political actions, all of which compel the reader to think about the world—and changing the world—in new ways."

– Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

"The Idealist is a priceless research compendium for anyone studying copyright culture. Starting at the very beginning of copyright law in the 1700s, Justin Peters carefully escorts the reader into the Kafkaesque copyright and DRM-plagued world that we live in today. Peters is somehow able to pinpoint the complex questions that our culture has to answer if we are to move forward into the future without forgetting our past."

– Lisa Rein, co-founder of CreativeCommons and Aaron Swartz Day

"In powerful, clear-eyed prose, Justin Peters recounts Aaron Swartz's life story and astutely explains why that story continues to matter today. The Idealist should be required reading for anyone who has ever shared—or who hasn't ever shared—a file on the Internet."

– David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress

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