Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

By E. Gabriella Coleman | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 5
Code Is Speech

Like many computer aficionados today, Seth Schoen writes all of his software as free software to ensure that the source code—the underlying directions of computer programs—will remain accessible for other developers to use, modify, and redistribute. In so doing, Schoen not only makes technology but also participates in an effort that redefines the meaning of liberal freedom, property, and software by asserting in new ways that code is speech. A tiny portion of a 456-stanza haiku written by Schoen (2001), for example, makes just this claim:

Programmers’ art as
that of natural scientists
is to be precise,

complete in every
detail of description, not
leaving things to chance.

Reader, see how yet
technical communicants
deserve free speech rights;

see how numbers, rules,
patterns, languages you don’t
yourself speak yet,

still should in law be
protected from suppression,
called valuable speech!1

Schoen’s protest poem not only argued that source code is speech but also demonstrated it: the extensive haiku was in fact a transcoding of a short piece of free software called DeCSS, which could be used to decrypt access controls on DVDs in violation of current copyright laws. Schoen did not write this poem simply to be clever. His work was part of a worldwide wave of protests following the arrest of DeCSS’ coauthor, Johansen, and the lawsuits launched against some of those who published the software.

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