Copyleft Hackers

The exploitation of our world's resources is one way that commercial interests are eroding our environment and common heritage, but also the wholesale copyrighting and patenting of concepts as well as objects is a another. The implications of private ownership of knowledge are deeply disturbing. Companies are staking their claims on living organisms and even annexing genetic material from humans, a trend supported and enforced by the unelected and undemocratic World Trade Organisation. In these cases the term "protection of intellectual property" is no more than a cover for an institutionalised regime of robbery, which allows and encourages corporations to take, with coercion and/or force, that which is not theirs - and then withhold it from those who cannot pay their prices.

There have been a few attempts at loosening the tightening strangle hold on the ownership of information, for example material (such as SchNEWS) which is published as "anti-copyright" - making information free to be reproduced and proliferate. But things have been taken to a further, interactive level.

There is a simple idea which has built into it a viral strategy that not only proliferates and develops knowledge freely but also protects itself against usurpers - so effectively that many corporations feel increasingly threatened by its dramatic advances into their fortified territory. It is an idea that has its roots in the computer hacking community, though it isn't intrinsically electronic, and has aspects that are profoundly philosophical and politically potent. It is the concept of "Copyleft".

Copyleft started life with the "open source" computer movement which was begun by Richard "Math-You" Stallman in 1984. Stallman, a hacker working at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) had become disillusioned with the way in which private companies had bought out the various projects he and his colleagues had been working on. He realised that to "protect" software ownership by keeping its "source code" secret was actually damaging to software evolution.

Commercially produced software is of low quality, bug-ridden, and the unknown source code prevents any possible improvements being made by the user. Stifling the free flow of ideas weakens the whole field and stagnates the craft. Stallman, angered by the profiteers, left MIT, started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and resolved to create a superior software product that would be free for all to use. The name of this software is GNU.

To make this possible Stallman drew on his experiences of shared information in the hacking community. The first problem was the work load: a programming project of this scale is daunting, especially for Stallman alone. The other problem was that any "open source" code that he wrote could later be co-opted and sold on as a proprietary product. It was in solving these problems that Stallman went on to form the next part of his idea, a part that some would argue is as important as the actual software, if not more so. With the help of a lawyer he reinvented the parameters of his trade and drafted a radically new concept, the General Public Licence (GPL) or, as it's better known, Copyleft.

Instead of restricting the rights of the user the Copyleft licence protects them. It ensures the product is free for all to use and remains free. It stipulates that the source code must be open, allowing people to modify and improve upon the original. If such modifications are made then these modifications also must carry the Copyleft licence - and the resulting software is free (freeware). Not only does this have obvious benefits for the end user but also it means that any bugs can be ironed out and that many more people can contribute to the project strengthening and perfecting it.

GNU and the Copyleft concept swept around the world like wild fire. The Copyleft agreement became the written constitution of many hackers, a symbol of idealistic and technical achievement and unshakable integrity. It has paved the way for many free packages:

The brightest star in the open source galaxy is currently LINUX, an operating system originated by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, in the early 90's. Now, after years of combined work with other hackers, (including Stallman), Linux is so stable and strong that it is used on 18 million computers worldwide [1]. In fact Linux and its allied components, is so good that it is considered the imminent successor to all commercial operating systems and ultimately the nemesis of the corporations grand plan.

So, from software design, which is perhaps seen by some as a rather rigid and formulated craft, a high quality free and flexible system arises, that has organically evolved from a sharing community spirit - (and wipes the floor with the cut-throat commercial opposition). What other applications could Copyleft have... ?

For practical purposes Copyleft works better in some areas than in others. People have tried with books and music but have had problems, after all, few "Artistes" would approve of persons unknown tampering with their work. However, within the electronic music scene there is a thriving community of hacker-types who openly share sound sources and techniques.

www.wikipedia.org is an on line Copyleft encyclopedia which contains 19,000 entries and can be added to by anyone.

Another example of a successful application has been the Openlaw project at the Harvard Law School. Here lawyers work through cases in an open forum, unlike the usual method of working out challenges behind closed doors and only giving out the end result publicly. Wendy Selzer who runs Openlaw says, "We deliberately used free software as a model. The gains are much the same as for software. Hundreds of people scrutinise the 'code' for bugs, and make suggestions how to fix it. And people will take underdeveloped parts of the argument, work on them, then patch them in." In this way the case that the Openlaw project is currently working on, a case pronounced unwinnable in the beginning, has now gone through the entire legal system to the Supreme Court. Those involved strongly believe that the open strategy is a particularly effective way to help citizens rights and community groups [2].

As a graphic artist, I too would like to contribute what I can towards extending the applications of Copyleft - I feel that graphic communication is an area in which the concept could thrive. The manipulation of information by the mass media and the private ownership of almost everything creates the ideal climate for the contagious spread of information scrawled anonymously over the blank concrete walls that try to block us in or keep us out. And for just such a purpose I have thrown together three simple arcs to form a stencillable Copyleft sign, which is, naturally, copylefted and there for the use of anyone who may need it. May your mark count.

[1] New Scientist 2/2/02 Graham Lawton p35-36

[2] New Scientist 2/2/02 Graham Lawton p37

Books: Rebel Code. Glyn Moody. Allen Lane Penguin Press 2001.