If Code Is Law, Then Coders Are Lawyers

My latest review for Jotwell is up! It’s a review of Gabriella Coleman’s hot-off-the-presses new book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. My review is titled If Code Is Law, Then Coders Are Lawyers and it praises Coleman’s perceptive, sympathetic account of how computer hackers have received, internalized, and challenged intellectual property law. A taste:

What makes Coding Freedom truly stand out, however, is that “free software hacker” is an identity significantly constituted in relation to the law. To write free software is to choose to release one’s code using a carefully crafted copyright license; Coleman’s hackers elevate this legal issue to prime significance in their working lives. Coding Freedom is thus both the oft-told story of a legal idea–free software–and the lesser-known story of how numerous hackers, following personal but parallel tracks, have engaged with copyright law.

Coleman describes two crossing trajectories in copyright: the rise of an increasingly expansive domestic and international copyright system and the simultaneous rise of the free software movement, The former is bent on restricting uses; the latter on enabling them. The two collided in the early 2000s in the fights over the implementation of the DMCA, particularly the DeCSS case and the arrest of Dmitry Sklyarov. The result was the politicization of copyright in code: inspired by legal scholars and free software evangelists, many hackers saw themselves as participants in a struggle against a repressive copyright system.

Coding Freedom makes these familiar stories fresh. Free-software hackers were receptive to a fight-for-your-rights narrative precisely because they were already embedded in a professional context that foregrounded the political and ethical implications of copyright law. What is more, they engaged with copyright law as law, drafting licenses to achieve a free-software goals, endlessly debating the minutiae of license compliance, and critiquing copyright’s inconsistencies with the playful creativity of appellate litigators.

As far as I know, according to US copyright law the creator of intellectual property, including software, can intentionally put it into the public domain or release it with a license crafted by the creator. There’s no “fight” there.

If law is code, then lawyers are hackers?

lol like your thinking gillian!

In the US, the term means both any programmer (as in “J. Random Hacker”) and one who specializes in illegally breaking into systems, more properly known as a “cracker,” a confusion largely created by the media. Many programmers whose activities are entirely innocent call themselves hackers.

Many programmers whose activities are entirely innocent call themselves hackers.

In the UK also.