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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.
The sociologist John Thompson (at 4:05) gave a particularly thrilling presentation. Thompson is the author of Merchants of Culture, a detailed study of how contemporary trade publishing works (and sometimes doesn’t work) based on interviews with dozens of insiders. His talk was a relentless analysis of the economic logic of the industry, particularly the growth of bottom-line-driven “extreme publishing” and the painful financial squeeze in which publishing houses find themselves. If you are seriously interested in the publishing industry and its future, watch his talk. There is no better use of a half hour of your time.
At times, the room seemed to be divided between publishing insiders and outsiders, each rolling their eyes at the others’ ignorance. Thompson broke through the cultural disconnect, bringing a scholar’s rigor to the rich tacit knowledge of publishing professionals. These moments of mutual understanding are hard-won, but essential.
Other bloggers in the audience have written up outstanding summaries of the conference as they experienced it. Michael Shatzkin and Caleb Crain’s reactions are perceptive and thoughtful, exactly the kind of conversation we were hoping to spark.
If you missed the fun, or want to relive it, streaming versions of the conference panels are now available on the conference website, and we hope to have downloadable versions available soon. (New York Law School was closed due to Hurricane Sandy the week after the conference, and since then, the IT staff has been working extra-hard. Getting the conference videos edited took a backseat to relaunching the IT infrastructure and supporting dozens of makeup classes.)