“Phreaking and Hackers Club” application ▰ From USENET ☯92APR
Chapter 16 of Adrian Johns’s Piracy is centered on software. In history, the development of early software is a relatively recent step on the path to controversial piracy today. One of the largest arguments today is over the intellectual property laws with respect to computers and networking. There is an enormous amount of money to be made from the generation of software, the computers that run it, and the networking connections that bring personal computers together. Computers have developed from purely computational devices into refined tools and creative platforms that consumers expect to be tailored to their specific uses. As coding has become simultaneously more complicated and user-friendly, ambiguity over exactly what makes is or isn’t pirated code and software has become a serious point of contention.
Johns presents that piracy was not always a concern as the first widespread software became popular. There were tight communities such as the Homebrew Club which shared their software by tapes. Members of these communities acted with the idea of openness, sharing, and the idea of creating a group of technical experts. Exactly like researchers, accomplishments and successful programs were shared and improved upon, then distributed to the entire community by means of a centralized library of material donated by its members.
A familiar complaint eventually came up when the BASIC language that Bill Gates created with the intent to generate profit in his Micro-soft company ended up distributed among the members of the Homebrew community. He complained of lost profits and called the sharers thieves. The sharers themselves could write their own version of BASIC from the ground up, and Gates’ opinion gained little traction at the time.
The interchange with Gates and the Homebrew community was one of the first significant instances in modern software history where the idea of software being an intellectual property of an individual became apparent. One of the most interesting solutions to this kind of problem came from the Xanadu project. It was a code that included liscencing; its leader Ted Nelson explained “You publish something, anyone can use it. You always get a royalty automatically.” (p 479) It was one of the more interesting options that combined both advances in coding software and individual profit. I personally found this fascinating, but it history it never did catch on.
This type of regulation is also beginning to reoccur in our present day. In a number of fields, the government has been making a harder push to attempt to regulate ‘the problem of piracy’ in what Heller-Roazen, one of our earlier authors, called a region where exceptional legal rules apply- the internet. Take the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), all recent and nearly identical acts introduced to further define piracy as illegal activity on the internet and encourage special rules to allow the government to deal with it. This is at least in part because the internet’s exceptional networking makes it easier than ever to share and distribute anything. It has become both a target for regulators and a haven for distributors. Much like the software community that distributed and improved upon software, there is also a similar network in pirate computing specific to the internet. The practice of infiltrating or using networking otherwise designed to be private has come to be known as hacking. The image above indicates the kind of form that was used to accept new members into the hacking communities that became prevalent as computers became more significant in everyday life.
This hacker network originated in telephone networking. Interestingly enough, the actual details of contacting a computer using phones were made clear enough to begin computer networking came from the practice of phreaking. Johns describes the process of phreaking and how it was phone piracy; often it meant making calls that would otherwise be charged to the phone company for free. Some people used this ability for scientific experimentation while others used it for a free lunch. Like with software, the balance between abuse of the system and the use of a tool for experimentation created something like a dichotomy. Without phreaking it is unlikely that the understanding of networking between computers would be so well understood, despite the costs it accrued to the company providing the service. Simultaneously, being able to phreak was a valuable skill and a shameful act that not everyone wanted to admit to.
As the origins of modern computing, both phreaking and hacking have both provided advances and problems that we are still struggling to work out in modern society. Hundreds of computing languages, operating systems, software, and applications have overloaded the market to the point that finding authors and inspiration to any given code seems impossible. However, with so many authors and coders profiting even from small 99 cent purchases, the pressure to find a compromise between progress and property is only increasing.