Hack License

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Wed Feb 9 08:24:14 PST 2005


Technology Review


Hack License
By Simson Garfinkel March 2005

As cultural critic and New School University professor McKenzie Wark sees
things, today's battles over copyrights, trademarks, and patents are simply
the next phase in the age-old battle between the productive classes and the
ruling classes that strive to turn those producers into subjects. But
whereas Marx and Engels saw the battle of capitalist society as being
between two social classes-the proletariat and the bourgeoisie-Wark sees
one between two newly emergent classes: the hackers and a new group that
Wark has added to the lexicon of the academy: the "vectoralist class."

Wark's opus A Hacker Manifesto brings together England's Enclosure
Movement, Das Kapital, and the corporate ownership of information-a process
that Duke University law professor James Boyle called "the Second Enclosure
Movement"-to create a unified theory of domination, struggle, and freedom.
Hacking is not a product of the computer age, writes Wark, but an ancient
rite in which abstractions are created and information is transformed. The
very creation of private property was a hack, he argues-a legal hack-and
like many other hacks, once this abstraction was created, it was taken over
by the ruling class and used as a tool of subjugation.

So who are these vectoralists? They are the people who control the vectors
by which information flows throughout our society. Information wants to be
free, Wark writes, quoting (without attribution) one of the best-known
hacker aphorisms. But by blocking the free vectors and charging for use of
the others, vectoralists extract value from practically every human

 There is no denying that vectoralist organizations exist: by charging for
the distribution of newspapers or Web pages, such organizations collect
money whenever we inform ourselves. By charging for the distribution of
music, they collect money off the expression of human culture. 

 Yes, today many Web pages and songs can be accessed over the Internet for
free. But others cannot be. The essence of the successful vectoralist,
writes Wark, is in this person's ability to rework laws and technology so
that some vectors can flourish while other vectors-the free ones-are
systematically eliminated.

But does Wark have it right? By calling his little red book A Hacker
Manifesto, Wark hopes to remind us of Marx and Mao. Does this concept of
"vector" have what it takes to start a social movement? Are we on the cusp
of a Hacker Rebellion?

The Communists of the 1840s had more or less settled on the ground rules of
their ideology-the communal ownership of property and social payments based
on need-by the time Marx and Engels wrote their infamous tract. By
contrast, many individuals who identify themselves as hackers today are
sure to find Wark's description circumscribed and incomplete. 

 When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1980s, hackers were first and
foremost people who perpetrated stunts. It was a group of hackers that
managed to bury a self-inflating weather balloon near the 50-yard line at
the 1982 Harvard-Yale game; two years later, Caltech hackers took over the
electronic scoreboard at the Rose Bowl and displayed their own messages.
(Another group had hacked the Rose Bowl 21 years before, rewriting the
instructions left on 2,232 stadium seats so that Washington fans raising
flip-cards for their half-time show unknowingly spelled out "Caltech.")

Hackers were also spelunkers of MIT's tunnels, basements, and heating and
ventilation systems. These hackers could pick locks, scale walls, and
practically climb up moonbeams to reach the roofs of the Institute's
tallest buildings.

By the late 1980s, the media had seized on the word hacker-not to describe
a prankster, but as a person who breaks into computers and takes joyrides
on electronics networks. These hackers cracked computer systems, changed
school grades, and transferred millions of dollars out of bank accounts
before getting caught by the feds and sent to the pen.

 Finally, there were the kind of hackers  MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum
had previously called "compulsive programmers." These gods of software saw
the H-word as their badge of honor. Incensed by the hacker stereotype
portrayed in the media, these geeky mathlings and compiler-types fought
back against this pejorative use of their word-going so far as to write in
The New Hacker's Dictionary that the use of "hacker" to describe "malicious
meddler" had been "deprecated" (hacker lingo meaning "made obsolete"). I
remember interviewing one of these computer scientists in 1989 for the
Christian Science Monitor: the researcher threatened to terminate the
interview if I used the word "hacker" to describe someone who engaged in
criminal activity.

 Although the researcher and others like him were largely successful in
reclaiming their beloved bit of jargon, they were never able to fully
disassociate the word from its negative connotations. Today, the word
"hacker" is widely accepted to have two meanings. One reason, of course, is
that malicious meddlers continue to call themselves hackers.

Both Hacking Exposed, a mammoth three-author, 750-page book about to be
published in its fifth edition, and Hacking: The Art of Exploitation seem
to suggest that use of the word to describe someone with criminal intent is
alive and well. There are very much two kinds of hackers: "white-hat
hackers," who follow the programmer ethic and help people to secure their
computers, and "black-hat hackers," who actually do the dirty business. The
fact that it is the black hats who create the market demand for the white
hats is something that most white hats fail to mention. Also overlooked is
the fact that many who wear white hats today once wore black hats in their
distant or not-so-distant past.

 The idealized hackers for whom Wark has written his manifesto also
routinely engage in criminal activity-by violating the vectorial
establishment's laws of intellectual property. Vectorialists are not the
only victims of these crimes. And Wark's hackers are the kind of people who
would use peer-to-peer networks to let a million of their closest friends
download Hollywood's latest movies before they are released in theaters-a
prime example of hacker power to defeat the evils of vectorial oppression.
On the other hand, hackers also rent time on other networks in order to
send out billions of spam messages hawking the latest in penis enlargement.
When it comes to the hacker pastime of criminal computer trespass, Wark is

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

>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.

Hardware Hacks
The problem here is that sharing may work for software, but it doesn't work
for hardware. Moore's Law has driven much of the computer revolution, but
it requires that companies like Intel spend more and more money each year
to create the next generation of superfast chips. Take away Intel's
copyright and patent protection, and knock-off companies would create clone
Intel processors for a fraction of the cost. These chips would be
dramatically cheaper than Intel's, and Intel would not have the money to
create the next generation of still-faster devices. Moore's Law depends
upon vectoral control.

Wark's opus doesn't just ignore hardware-it ignores hardware hacking, the
tradition of modifying circuits and computers to do things that the
original designers never intended. Hardware hackers are pros at both adding
new features and removing arbitrary restrictions-like the region codes on
DVD players that won't let European DVDs play in U.S. players. Yet
increasingly, hardware is where the action is. Books such as Hacking the
Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering are exposing secrets to the
masses that once were strictly the province of MIT and Caltech midnight
seminars. Hardware hackers are largely motivated by exactly the same
antivectoralist tendencies as the hackers creating file-sharing networks:
the desire to get around restrictions that have been artificially imposed
upon their beloved technology. Hackers are people who use technical means
to break restrictive rules and, as a result, create new possibilities. They
are agents of disruptive change, no matter whether they hack code,
networks, video-game consoles or copyright. By failing to address hardware
and its hackers, Wark's work once again falls short of its title.

And what of information yearning to be free? The quotation comes from
Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, speaking at the first
Hacker's Conference back in 1984. According to a transcript of the
conference printed in Brand's May 1985 issue, the full quotation was: "On
the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable.
The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the
other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it
out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting
against each other."

 If I might be so bold as to rekngineer Brand's quotation while looking
through Wark's glasses, it's the hackers who want information to be free,
and it's the vectoralists who want information to be expensive. Having
known and admired Stallman for more than 20 years, I've long understood the
concept of the hacker. Wark's contribution in his misnamed volume is the
identification of the hacker's enemy, the vectoral class. It is a battle, I
fear, that we cannot win. But it is one that must be fought.
Simson Garfinkel is a researcher in the field of computer security. He is
the author of Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century
(2000). He is currently a doctoral candidate at MIT's Computer Science and
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

More information about the cypherpunks-legacy mailing list