Freedom versus Free Beer
Absent as well is any reference to hardware hacking – or, indeed, any reference to hardware at all. To Wark, hacking is about bits, not atoms. The power of Big Vector is its ability to control information networks like the telegraph and the Internet, not transportation networks like FedEx. The intellectual property that Wark is concerned about is the property of abstraction: movies, programs, drugs. It’s information that “wants to be free.” Wark comes down pretty hard on the patenting of genetic information, but presumably the patents that apply to the design of piston engines or wind turbines are another matter entirely.
Hacker philosophers such as Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig frequently play up the fact that information can be given away without being relinquished. It is this fundamental fact that makes information different from other goods, they argue. It is why the old rules of property should not apply in the digital domain.
Stallman wrote in 1985, “the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.” Stallman continues, “Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.”
Stallman, more than anyone else, is rightfully credited with kicking off what we now know as the “open source movement” – which he calls “Free Software.” That’s “free” as in “freedom,” not as in “free beer,” Stallman is quick to point out. The culture of sharing software was in danger of dying out in the early 1980s when Stallman started the GNU Project and wrote “The GNU Manifesto.”
GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix – an all too clever recursive hacker acronym. The original goal of the project was to create a free version of the Unix operating system. But Stallman worked hard to extend the consciousness of programmers beyond mere lines of code and into the world of politics – specifically the politics of intellectual property. He staged a hacker protest at the headquarters of Lotus when that company tried to enforce copyright restrictions on user interfaces. He wrote and spoke, rallying against copyright restrictions and software patents.
Like “the Party” in 1984 and real-live Communists in China, Stallman promotes his ideology in part by rewriting everyday speech. He went so far as to publish an official list of “Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding” – words like “commercial,” “consumer,” “content,” “creator,” “open,” and “intellectual property.” For example, he writes, instead of using the phrase “copyright protection,” one should instead use “copyright restrictions,” as in the sentence: “Congress recently extended the term of copyright restrictions by 20 years.”
These tactics turned off supporters and were put to good use as counterpropaganda by his detractors – such as a software executive who once accused Stallman of being a Communist because of his collectivist software ideology. The emergence of the term “open source” amounted to a slap in Stallman’s face: after all, it was a direct attempt to separate the mechanism of Free Software from Stallman’s barefoot politics of free love, his vehement attacks on the beliefs and conduct of the Republican party, and his vigorous defense of personal freedom.
Using Wark’s framework, this all makes a kind of sense. Stallman is not opposed to big business and capitalism: he is opposed to big vector and the vectoralist agenda of creating a body of intellectual property law that eliminates the possibility of alternatives. Anyone committed to freedom must be opposed to the vectoralist class, because it profits through control.
From this Wark-Stallman view that intellectual property is really just a self-enriching tool evolves the conclusion that the world of computers would be better off without the majority of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other legal means for restricting intellectual property.
Lessig, meanwhile, takes these mechanisms of restriction in a different direction. In The Future of Ideas he argues that a combination of legal and technical restrictions are fencing off our cultural heritage. In the not-so-distant future, perhaps, the very phrase “free expression” will become an oxymoron, as any self-respecting expression will necessarily have to pay licensing fees for numerous ideas, phrases, images, and even thoughts from well-funded copyright holders.
Lessig failed in his attempt to fight the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in the U.S. Supreme Court – the act that will keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain for another 20 years. But despite this serious setback, Lessig has succeeded in convincing thousands of professionals to put their signatures on his so-called “Creative Commons” licenses, which allow colleagues and other professionals to freely cite from and reprint one another’s work, and even make derivative works.