Lessig on Aaron Swartz: Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

It has been an awful week. Together with Adib Kheir, who was a very important person to me, I am mourning with the entire Internet community the loss of  one of the bravest fighters for the open web, Aaron Swartz. Somebody who fought so much to keep the Internet an open place; somebody who -among millions of other great things he did – helped to start Creative Commons and successfully mobilized the web against SOPA.

This “kid” (he was only 26 yrs old)  committed suicide in his NYC apartment one week ago. Since then, the debate on the Internet about this tragic loss and the reasons behind it has been growing and growing.

I will try to come back on this and give more context to the readers of this blog who might not be all familiar with Aaron and his case.

But tonight I want to re-publish something that touched me deeply in my heart. It`s Lawrence Lessig`s latest post on Aaron, who he deeply loved. It is just heartbreaking. And it gives us a lot to think about..about law, moral, society, and love.


A time for silence

A week ago today, Aaron gave up. And since I received the call late Friday night telling me that, like so many others who were close to him, I have not rested. Not slept, really. Not connected with my kids, at all. Not held my wife except to comfort her tears, or for her to comfort mine.

Instead of rest, I have been frantically trying to explain, to connect, and to make sense of all of this. Endless emails responding to incredible kindness, phone call after phone call with reporters and friends, and the only solace I know: writing.

But none of that has made this better. Indeed, with every exchange, it only gets worse. I understand it less. I am angry more. I think of yet another, “If only I had …”

I need to step back from this for now. I am grateful for your kind emails. I am sorry if I can’t answer them. To the scores of people who write to tell me they were wronged by US Attorney Ortiz, I am sorry, that is not my fight. To the press — especially the press wanting “just five minutes” — I apologize. This isn’t a “just five minutes” story, at least from me.

There have been a handful of smiles this past week. My three year old, Tess, putting her arms around my neck, holding me as tight as she possibly could, promising me “the doctors will put him back together, papa, they will.” A screenwriter friend, grabbing me after a talk in New York, and pulling me into an argument about his next great film. And best of all, the astonishingly beautiful letter from MIT’s president, acknowledging — amazingly — at least the possibility of responsibility, and appointing the very best soul on that side of Cambridge to review and guide that great if flawed institution’s review.

But these smiles have been drowned by endless sadness, and even greater disappointment — and none more pronounced than the utterly profound disappointment in our government, Carmen Ortiz in particular.

I hate my perpetual optimism about our government. Aaron was buried on the tenth anniversary of the time that optimism bit me hardest — Eldred v. Ashcroft. But how many other examples are there, and why don’t I ever learn? The dumbest-fucking-naive-allegedly-smart person you will ever know: that guythought this tragedy would at least shake for one second the facade of certainty that is our government, and allow at least a tiny light of recognition to shine through, and in that tiny ray, maybe a question, a pause, a moment of “ok, we need to look at this carefully.” I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that Ortiz could achieve the grace of Reif. But the single gift I wanted was at least a clumsy, hesitating, “we’re going to look at this carefully, and think about whether mistakes might have been made.”

But oh Lucy, you’ve done it again.

Ortiz’s statement is a template for all that is awful in what we as a political culture have become. And it pushes me — me, the most conventional, wanting-to-believe-in-all-things-patriotic, former teenage Republican from the home of Little League baseball — to a place far more radical than I ever want to be. Ortiz wrote:

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz,

Yes, Ms. Ortiz, you obviously can “only imagine.” Because if you felt it, as obviously as Reif did, it would move you first to listen, and then to think. You’re so keen to prove that you understand this case better than your press releases about Aaron’s “crime” (those issued when Aaron still drew breath) made it seem (“the prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain”). But if your prosecutors recognized this, then this is the question to answer:

Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

His motive was political — obviously. His harm was exactly none — as JSTOR effectively acknowledged. But he deserved, your “career prosecutors” believed, to be deprived of his rights as a citizen (aka, a “felon,” no longer entitled to the political rights he fought to perfect) because of what he did.

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of? King, whose motives were political too, but who, unlike Aaron, triggered actions which caused real harm. What’s that number?


And how many was he even charged with in the whole of his career?

Two. Two bogus charges (perjury and tax evasion) from Alabama, which an all-white jury acquitted him of.

This is a measure of who we have become. And we don’t even notice it. We can’t even see the extremism that we have allowed to creep into our law. And we treat as decent a government official who invokes her family while defending behavior which in part at least drove this boy to his death.

I still dream. It is something that Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren are thinking along the same lines. On this anniversary of the success of the campaign to stop SOPA — a campaign which Aaron helped architect — maybe I’m right to be hopeful that even this Congress might do something. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe.

But for now, I need to step away. I apologize for the silence. I am sorry for the replies I will not give. Aaron was wrong about very few things, but he was wrong to take his life. I have to return to mine, and to the amazingly beautiful creatures who are trying to pull me back.

I will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.

18 January 2013 ·

RIP Syrian TV Producer Adib Kheir

Adib Kheir was one of the most prominent figures behind quality Syrian drama (musalsalat). He was a passionate TV producer, a great creative person, a talented advertiser.

When I was writing my PHD on Syrian drama I used to bother him many times to ask him millions of questions about TV production in Syria, selling agreements, copyright issues, distribution, the latest hot topics in musalsalat, etc. I would stop by his office and have coffee with him. Or he would invite me for lunch at Shakespeare, one of his favorite places in Damascus. I would ask him to get DVDs of his latest production or to grant me a visit to the set of one of his musalsalat, and he would always say “ahlan w sahlan fiki” (welcome).

Adib was a gentleman. He was kind, human, and was a professional. He loved TV, he loved going to TV markets (we would always jump into each other twice a year at MIP in Cannes) and loved to be in this industry. Maybe not many people know that, but Adib is the one who dubbed Turkish soap operas into Syrian dialect. This was a brilliant idea. Dubbing those soap operas in any other Arabic dialect or, worse, in classical Arabic, would have probably never resulted in a big market boom for Turkish products and, consequently, in the success of those Arab producers who first took the  decision to invest into Turkish fiction.

Adib opened this market and had the best dubbing services for musalsalat. He was well respected in the industry and MBC, the most prominent entertainment network in the region, often commissioned him TV work.

He is the producer behind “Amal ma fe” (Hope there isn`t any), a Syrian musalsal directed by Laith Hajjo, a dark comedy featuring two characters in a sort of “Waiting for Godot” surreal atmosphere.


With Sama Art Production, the company he founded with Syrian actor Jamal Suleiman, he produced the first season of the regional success “Daya Daaya” (The forgotten village), directed again by Laith Hajjo who was also a personal friend of Adib`s.

Few weeks after the uprising started in Syria, when many Syrian production companies issued the so-called “bayan al-sharikat” to boycott the actors and actresses who had asked to bring humanitarian support to the city of Daraa, Adib did not sign the petition. He did not want to ostracize his colleagues.

He believed in the profession and loved it. He was passionate about TV production and loved his country, Syria. Last time I saw him in Beirut, he surprised me by bringing me a box of Semiramis sweets, my favorite shop in Damascus. I will never forget this small but so meaningful thing he did for  me without being asked. He brought me a piece of Damascus. He knew I loved the city as if it were my city. He was very sensitive about what was happening to his country. He had decided to stay in Syria, to try to keep his business open, despite the challenges and the critical situation, because he knew so many people, his employees and their families, would depend on his company`s survival.

An heart attack took him away from his loved ones today. Allah yarhamo. We will miss you, Adibo.

All the people who had the privilege to work with such a professional and human person will deeply miss Adib Kheir.




a picture of Adib Kheir I took during his visit to Copenhagen, September 2011.

The brides of freedom are finally free!

Yesterday, in the framework of the prisoners` exchange deal worked out between the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army, many political prisoners have been released. The four “brides of freedom” ( “عروسة الحرية”) are among them.

Rima Dali, Ru’a Ja’far, Kinda al-Za’our and Lubna al-Za’our,were arrested in Damascus on 21 November 2012, after staging a peaceful protest in the central market of  Midhat Basha. They dressed up as ‘brides’ and silently called upon the end of violence in Syria by just raising banners. One of them said:  “We are all exhausted, we want another solution”, clearly rejecting the increasing militarization of the conflict from both sides.

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The four brides were immediately arrested by security officers and their whereabouts remained unknown for a long time.

Rima Dali, who is listed by Foreign Policy magazine among the 100 Global Thinkers, was arrested before by Syrian security for staging peaceful protests and civil disobedience actions.

She was given the nickname of “little red riding hood” after dressing up in red and raising a red sign in front of the Syrian Parliament saying “Stop the killing. We want to build a nation for all Syrians!”. 

Peaceful activists and supporters of civil disobedience are having hard times in Syria these days. Many of them have been obliged to leave the country, others have been arrested or killed.

The fact that the brides of freedom are finally free is indeed good news for the entire Syrian peaceful movement, which has been struggling to survive amidst the violence in Syria.



Lessig on Free Bassel

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and professor at Harvard Law School, has published on The Wall Street Journal a very touching op-ed for our Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi, detained in Syria since March 2012.

Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell

A Syrian tech wizard is jailed by the Assad regime. His sin? Spreading the word about utilizing the Internet.


It has been a decade since lawyers and technologists formed the nonprofit corporation Creative Commons to help artists and authors share their work with each other and the world. Creative Commons offered free copyright licenses, tied to underlying computer code that made it simpler for artists and authors to signal the freedoms they want their creativity to carry to prospective users and the world.

Very quickly, a wide range of creators, including scientists, scholars, educators, musicians, bloggers, photographers and filmmakers began using these licenses to make their works more freely available—legally, and within the protective contours of traditional copyright. The resulting explosion of shared material today includes hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr, tens of thousands of “open access” scholarly articles, thousands of videos on YouTube and Blip.tv, and the heart of all free culture, Wikipedia.

For most of us in the West, this movement has supported a new era of creative excitement and intellectual freedom. In some parts of the world, however, the cost of supporting this movement to share information has been high.

Creative Commons began in the U.S. But very quickly the idea spread globally, adapted in each case to fit the copyright laws and language of specific countries. Thousands of volunteers internationally worked to spread the technology, including code indicating that material is covered by a Creative Commons license and thus free to use and adapt, within specified limits.

Yet as Creative Commons spread, its meaning was morphed by the countries that adopted it. In South America, for instance, Creative Commons was regarded as a victory in the battle between North and South—between the West and the rest, so to speak—over intellectual property rights. Brazil’s minister of culture, the musician Gilberto Gil, embraced Creative Commons as a symbol of the new flexibility that he thought copyright law should have.




CC/Joi Ito

Computer programmer and open-source developer Bassel Khartabil

Throughout the Middle East, Creative Commons has become part of a broader and growing movement for freedom that captured the sense of a people starved for access to culture and truth beyond their own borders. With the connections made possible by the Internet, the licenses opened the door wide to legal sharing of all kinds of material.

In nations with repressive regimes, though, governments have grown suspicious and increasingly wary of so-called free culture. Now one early Creative Commons supporter in Syria may face the ultimate penalty for his work to give Syrians an easier way to share their creative work.

Bassel Khartabil is a 31-year-old computer programmer. He is also a pacifist and the Syrian lead for the Creative Commons project. For more than a decade, he has been working locally to integrate Syria into the online world, going into schools and businesses, for instance, to teach them how to use the new tools of technology, and educating future bloggers and website architects.

Mr. Khartabil has also helped spread freely licensed software and culture throughout the region and in so doing encouraged Syrians to develop critical skills like remixing. The ability to take images and other material and mix them into social commentary—as the Jib Jab videos do in the U.S., for instance—is a free-speech right that Americans take for granted. But in a country like Syria, the ability to do something like juxtapose dubious claims by the country’s leadership with more truthful images from other sources makes remixing an important tool for political dissent.

In late 2012, Foreign Policy named Mr. Khartabil one of this year’s top 100 thinkers. The magazine singled him out for “fostering an open-source community in a country long on the margins of the Internet’s youth culture.”

But Mr. Khartabil wasn’t able to accept that honor. He was arrested in March by Syrian authorities because of his work and has been held—at times in utter isolation—ever since. His family fears the very worst.

Mr. Khartabil isn’t a partisan, aligned with one Syrian faction against another. He represents a future, aligned against a totalitarian past. The Syrian government is fearful of the potential threat to the totalizing control that defines the modern Syrian state. The government thus wants to shut the free-software, free-culture movement down, in a way that only a totalitarian regime can.

Syria won’t win this battle in the long term, just as the regime is unlikely to outlast the insurrection now wracking the country. It, too, will learn that the future cannot be stopped, even if the men and women leading it can be silenced.

Mr. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and a member of the board of Creative Commons.

A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell.

The Starfish

I want to start the New Year with poetry.

This is “L`etoile de mer” (The starfish) by Robert Desnos, mise en scene by Man Ray. It was done in 1928, almost a century ago…but the beauty of its images, its music, its words, stays there, so powerful.

My best wishes for 2013. Kull 3mm w entu be alf kheir. And may this new year be filled with poetry, beauty, dreams, and peace.

“Vous ne rêvez pas” (You are not dreaming)…