01/15/2013 02:22 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz: hero or thief?

While tributes pour in about Aaron Swartz, the internet activist who was found dead of an apparent suicide in his New York apartment Friday, debate continues over whether his alleged actions of illegally downloading academic articles should be praised or scorned.

Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison after federal prosecutors alleged that he illegally gained access to millions of academic articles through the academic database JSTOR, which provides digitized academic journals to research institutions and universities.

But the 26-year-old Swartz, who also co-founded the social news website Reddit, was considered a Robin Hood-type hero among many, in particular the so-called "open access movement," which advocates the free, unrestricted dissemination of information through the internet.

His death "needs to become a rallying point for those who believe in online free speech, in the free culture movement," wrote Dominic Basulto, a futurist and New York City based-blogger, in the Washington Post.

But not all necessarily saw Swartz's actions as heroic.

Theodore Claypoole, an expert in internet law and intellectual property, said that the law has gone "way too far" in protecting copyright holders, but he still believes that Swartz was intentionally ruining the economic value of the information.

"I would suggest that many in that [open access] movement are highly naive about how the world works and whether or not some of this information would actually be pulled together if there wasn't someone paying for it," he said.

'Information is power'

Swartz, according to his supporters, was not stealing, but liberating the information kept in JSTOR, for no personal gain.

Back in 2008, Swartz laid out his own philosophy in his "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto," writing that academic information should be accessible to all.

"Information is power," he wrote. "But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations."

"We need to take information, where it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world."

According to federal prosecutors, near the end of 2010 Swartz broke into a network interface closet in the basement of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plugged his computer into the network and downloaded articles from JSTOR. He was later caught by campus and local police.

Among the charges Swartz faced was computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer for hacking into MIT’s computer network without authorization.

Claypoole said those like Swartz ignore the benefits of having private databases like JSTOR.

"Commercial databases are important," Claypoole said. "Commercial databases are serving a role that is not being served by the general internet and there are some specific types of information that needs to be presented in very specific ways that still benefit from having a private data bases. And anyone can join these private data bases, it's just that you can't do it for free."

"Some of these articles might simply not have been written or might not be findable. They may disappear into the dustbin of history and no one would ever see them."

'Incredibly difficult and expensive work'

Heidi McGregor, a spokeswoman for JSTOR, said people don't understand the costs involved in running a database.

"It's incredibly difficult and expensive work," she said.

"You have to source the publications. It also means going out and licensing and tracking down the copyright holders for all these things, and getting them to agree to give you the rights to bring the stuff online and who you can make it accessible to and doing that in a way they find conducive with their own objectives."

As the federal indictment against Swartz stated: "JSTOR's service is important to research institutions and universities because it can be extraordinarily expensive, in terms of both cost and space, for a research or university library to maintain a comprehensive collection of academic journals.

"By digitizing extensive historical collections of journals, JSTOR enables libraries to outsource the journals' storage, ensures their preservation and enables authorized users to conduct full-text, cross disciplinary searches of them," it said, adding that the company has invested millions of dollars into their database.

Even Harvard law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig, a supporter of Swartz's, believed that "what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong."

Although some of Swartz's supporters, like Lessig, disagreed with his actions, they have argued that federal prosecutors were heavy handed in going after him. Swartz's family said his death was a "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." (Swartz was also known to suffer from depression.)

Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University and expert in computer crime law, said that he believed the charges against Swartz were based on a fair reading of the law.

"None of the charges involved aggressive readings of the law or any apparent prosecutorial overreach," Kerr wrote in Volokh Conspiracy, a blog for law professors.

"All of the charges were based on established case law. Indeed, once the decision to charge the case had been made, the charges brought here were pretty much what any good federal prosecutor would have charged."