July 9, 2009

Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Debian,F/OSS,Free Speech,IP Law — Biella @ 7:12 am

After quite a few years of work, revisions, procrastination, and a few life changes, I have finally published a lengthy piece in Cultural Anthropology on code and speech entitled “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers, published in Cultural Anthropology. Debian figures pretty prominently as does the arrests of Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov and the DeCSS Haiku

update: If you have access to a University library, you can get it now. If you don’t, it will be available for free (as in beer) in a few months, and I might also post an uncorrected proof (as I believe I have permission to do so) or can send it to you if you request it. I have posted the pre-print proof here. Since these are the uncorrected proofs, there are a few minor mistakes.

Though published, this is also, much like software, a work in progress as the material represented here will also be in my book and the good news, is I can seriously expand on the issues I have raised. So I am looking for interested readers for feedback, which will thankfully make it in a book that I can post here.

Abstract below:

In this essay, I examine the channels through which Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) developers reconfigure central tenets of the liberal tradition—and the meanings of both freedom and speech—to defend against efforts to constrain their productive autonomy. I demonstrate how F/OSS developers contest and specify the meaning of liberal freedom—especially free speech—through the development of legal tools and discourses within the context of the F/OSS project. I highlight how developers concurrently tinker with technology and the law using similar skills, which transform and consolidate ethical precepts among developers. I contrast this legal pedagogy with more extraordinary legal battles over intellectual property, speech, and software. I concentrate on the arrests of two programmers, Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov, and on the protests they provoked, which unfolded between 1999 and 2003. These events are analytically significant because they dramatized and thus made visible tacit social processes. They publicized the challenge that F/OSS represents to the dominant regime of intellectual property (and clarified the democratic stakes involved) and also stabilized a rival liberal legal regime intimately connecting source code to speech.


  1. Umh, DOI not found?

    I am trying to acces this from my University. The magazine index loads fine, but any of the articles leads to an unexisting page rendered by dx.doi.org – Maybe that’s the access restriction you mention? :-(

    Comment by Gunnar — July 9, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  2. Usually you have to log into your library, find the journal Cultural Anthropology and go from there…

    I will email this to you as well!

    Comment by Biella — July 9, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  3. [...] friend (and now colleague at NYU), Gabriella Coleman has written an article about our story called “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free [...]

    Pingback by Fred Benenson’s Blog » Blog Archive » DeCSS and (My) Radicalization — July 23, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  4. I really enjoyed this article, while i’m just in the middle of planning to research on korean hacker culture. thank you for sharing it. Reading it, i got to have a question, that is if there haven’t been any limitation(s) that you found out the framework of free speech from the liberal tradition may have for the F/OSS movements and autonomous hacker culture? i just wonder if there isn’t any contesting concept(s) and situations along with free speech among F/OSS communities.
    BTW, it’s just tiny thing, but in 437 page saying “All this was helping to stabilize the growing links between source code and software largely because of the forceful arguments that computer code is expressive speech,” i think “between source code and software” shoud be “source code and free speech” or some like that.

    Comment by dong-won jo — August 3, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

  5. [...] ??? ???? – ??/???? ????? ????? ?? ??, ????, ??(CODE IS SPEECH – Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers), CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 24, Issue 3. American Anthropological Association. @ http://gabriellacoleman.org/blog/?p=1623 [...]

    Pingback by ???? ?(vs.) ??? ??: ????? ??? ??? ???! | ??? ?????? ???? — August 3, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  6. Dong won jo,

    Thanks for the comments and the editorial advice. I will make sure to reflect in the book.

    That is a good question about the limits of free speech. I don’t see it so much in the world of Free Software but in another variant of geekery, like trolling, I sure do. They take a free speech stance to the extreme in ways I find problematic. I am finishing a piece on that, which I will be more than happy to send when done.

    I look forward to learning more about your hacker research as well!

    Comment by Biella — August 5, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  7. thank you Biella for your reply.
    it’ll be great to read your other piece concerning another scene/stance to free speech.
    as for the korean hacker culture, i’m sure it’s more complicated and thus interesting. but atm, i’m just starting a research. i will get you for sure in near future hopefully, though.

    Comment by dongwon — August 6, 2009 @ 3:36 am

  8. [...] I encourage folks to take a read, it is readable, or so I think. Or maybe I should say far less jargony than some of my other stuff. [...]

    Pingback by Interprete » 1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I study F/OSS — August 14, 2009 @ 6:03 am

  9. [...] http://gabriellacoleman.org/blog/?p=1623 a few seconds ago from web [...]

    Pingback by Andy Oram (praxagora) 's status on Thursday, 08-Oct-09 15:18:49 UTC - Identi.ca — October 8, 2009 @ 8:00 am

  10. [...] is speechā€¯ (el cĆ³digo es palabra) escribe Bella Coleman, recogiendo ideas de hackers y geeks varios, y a eso me refiero cuando digo que hay gente peleando [...]

    Pingback by Muerte de un “coder” | Amphibia — January 14, 2013 @ 5:32 am

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