Book summary: Coding Freedom

These are my notes for “Coding Freedom”, a sociology/anthropology book that analyses the free software community. You can download it for free from its website, or buy a paper version. These notes cover only the history of free software, which I found very interesting even if I basically knew it already.

1970-1984: The commodification of software

During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, most hardware was sold with software and there was no software patent or copyright protection. Programmers in university labs routinely read and modified the computer source code of software produced by others.

In 1976, just as companies began to assert copyrights over software, Gates wrote a letter to a group of hobbyists chastising them for, as he saw it, stealing his software: they had freely distributed copies of Gates’ BASIC interpreter at one of their meetings.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the US software industries dominated internationally. Amid fears of losing ground to foreigners, US legislators launched an aggressive campaign to develop and fund the high-tech and knowledge economic sector and encountered little friction when accepting software patents in 1980.

1984-1991: Hacking and its discontents

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, corporations started to deny university-based hackers access to the source code to their corporate software, even if the hackers only intended to use it for personal or noncommercial use. This infuriated Richard Stallman, who became a “revenge programmer” (whole, fascinating story in p.68) and ultimately founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 and then wrote the first draft of the General Public License in 1989. In 1984 he actually said “I am the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel like I ought to be dead”.

1991-1998: Silent Revolutions

Trade groups intensified their efforts to change intellectual property law largely through international treaties. They worked with law enforcement to strike against “pirates”, pursued civil court remedies against copyright infringers, launched moral education campaigns about the evils of piracy, and pushed aggressively for the inclusion of intellectual property provisions in the multilateral trade treaties of the 1990s. For example, through TRIPS, patents had to ultimately be open to all technological fields.

In the meantime, Linux would gain momentum in companies: managers would say they were not using Linux, but techies would say “yes… but don’t tell my boss”.

1998-2004: Triumph of open source and ominous DMCA

The term “open source” (less philosophical and more technical) was created and won, and the DMCA was passed, which criminalised all attempts to circumvent access control measures (ie. DRM), practically giving copyright owners technological control over digitized copyright material.

Misc final notes

For most developers, acceptance of free software rarely led to political opposition producers of proprietary software, but made them develop a critical eye toward practices such as abuse of intellectual property law and tendency to hide problems from costumers: “Free software encourages active participation. Coporate software encourages consumption”.

One of the most profound political effects of free software has been to weaken the hegemonic status of intellectual property law; copyright and patents now have company.

And that’s it. I hope you enjoy it. Go download the book if it sounds interesting or you want to learn more about hacker culture and free software.