Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking


Who are computer hackers? What is free software? And what does the emergence of a community dedicated to the production of free and open source software--and to hacking as a technical, aesthetic, and moral project--reveal about the values of contemporary liberalism? Exploring the rise and political significance of the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement in the United States and Europe, Coding Freedom details the ethics behind hackers' devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. In telling the story of the F/OSS movement, the book unfolds a broader narrative involving computing, the politics of access, and intellectual property.

E. Gabriella Coleman tracks the ways in which hackers collaborate and examines passionate manifestos, hacker humor, free software project governance, and festive hacker conferences. Looking at the ways that hackers sustain their productive freedom, Coleman shows that these activists, driven by a commitment to their work, reformulate key ideals including free speech, transparency, and meritocracy, and refuse restrictive intellectual protections. Coleman demonstrates how hacking, so often marginalized or misunderstood, sheds light on the continuing relevance of liberalism in online collaboration.


Free and open-source software (F/OSS) refers to nonproprietary but licensed software, much of which is produced by technologists located around the globe who coordinate development through Internet-based projects. The developers, hackers, and system administrators who make free software routinely include the following artifact in the software they write:

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT
ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABIL
License for more details.

While seemingly insignificant, this warning is quite meaningful for it reveals something important about the nature of free software and my subsequent representation of it. This legal notice is no doubt serious, but it also contains a subtle irony available to those who know about free software. For even if developers cannot legally guarantee the so-called FITNESS of software, they know that in many instances free software is often as useful as or in some cases superior to proprietary software. This fact brings hackers the same sort of pleasure, satisfaction, and pride that they derive when, and if, they are given free reign to hack. Further, even though hackers distribute their free software WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY, the law nevertheless enables them to create the software that many deem superior to proprietary software—software that they all “hope […] will be useful.” The freedom to labor within a framework of their own making is enabled by licenses that cleverly reformat copyright law to prioritize access, distribution, and circulation. Thus, hackers short-circuit the traditional uses of copyright: the right to exclude and control.

This artifact points to the GNU General Public License (GPL), an agreement that many hackers know well, for many use it (or other similar licenses) to transform their source code—the underlying directions of all software—into “free software.” A quick gloss of the license, especially its preamble, reveals a more passionate language about freedom and rights:

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