Free software: why wait until we are dead to donate? By Norman Danner

What is free software, what is hacking, and do they have anything to do with each other? I wonder because it seems that Evan Roth views the former as falling under the rubric of the latter. Actually, Roth seems to conflate free software with open-source software, so we should probably make clear the meanings of the phrases. Free software is a movement that is founded in a philosophical position that software ought to be free to use, examine, and modify; the usual slogan says to think of “free” as in “free speech, not free beer.” You may have purchased the software, but upon doing so, it is yours to do with what you like. Software that is free in this sense necessarily has freely-available source code, but this is simply a consequence of the underlying philosophy. Open-source software is much more modest: it focuses on the open access to the artifacts of software development, with no commitment to an underlying philosophy. I assume Roth means “free” even when he says “open-source.” Hacking used to mean any sort of programming; it simply meant exploring the systems available to the programmer to learn what could be done. Of course, eventually that exploration led to the subversion of existing systems. The media referred to this as hacking when it occurred (which it was), and alas, the meaning of the word itself changed to this more restrictive usage, and even further to have strong negative connotations.

So is free software an instance of hacking? Absolutely, if we take back the original definition of the word. But then again, any programming is hacking in this sense, so this isn’t a very interesting claim. Is free software subversive? Yes, but in a deeper way than hacking. Free software development takes for granted that the best way to build a system is to make its construction public, and the best way to improve a system is to build the possibility of modification by anyone into not just its construction but into how that construction takes place. But taking advantage of this organizational technique is not subversion, because that is the intent! Whereas hacking subverts a single software product or installation, or perhaps the software used to convey the message of a corporation, free software goes much deeper and subverts the very model of closed corporate software development. The underlying philosophy of free software implicitly asserts that there is no ownership of ideas, of “intellectual property,” when it comes to code, because the idea embodied by the program must be made accessible to all. Hacking subverts a single item of intellectual property; free software subverts the very notion. So in fact there is no need to be an intellectual property donor upon our demise, as Roth would ask us to do: the writing of the software is the act of intellectual property donation, and indeed the act of subversion, and one that is better made earlier rather than later!

Norman Danner is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Wesleyan University.