But the meat of the book frustrated me, perhaps because I’m not familiar with anthropological writing of this sort. It felt like he half-told a bunch of stories: early development and forking of UNIX; the story of Apache; debates over the Linux kernel; the founding of an "open source" textbook/module project called Connexions; etc. But then at the end each story seemed to turn into generalities, or at least the absence of useful lessons. (This is the standard law professor's reaction: what's the payoff? What do you want me to do? And Kelty's specialty is understandably resistant to answering that question.)
There was a great story about UNIX, which at the relevant time was under relatively tight formal control by AT&T. A non-AT&T person wrote a commentary, which because of intellectual property concerns had a copyright notice and instructed people not to make copies. But, because access to actual code (not to mention access to actual computers) was very hard to come by, there was immense pressure to disseminate it. As one programmer wrote:
We soon came into possession of what looked like a fifth generation photocopy and someone who shall remain nameless spent all night in the copier room spawning a sixth, an act expressly forbidden by a carefully worded disclaimer on the first page. Four remarkable things were happening at the same time. One, we had discovered the first piece of software that would inspire rather than annoy us; two, we had acquired what amounted to a literary criticism of that computer software; three, we were making the single most significant advancement of our education in computer science by actually reading an entire operating system; and four, we were breaking the law.Kelty points out that this generation of computer science students therefore learned the essentials of UNIX while also learning that AT&T was trying unsuccessfully to control the distribution of the commentary. Computer science already had, at the moment of its explosion, a fraught relationship with law and with copying, here photocopying. Kelty concludes:
This nascent recursive public not only understood itself as belonging to a technical elite which was constituted by its creation, understanding, and promotion of a particular technical tool, but also recognized itself as “breaking the law,” a community constituted in opposition to forms of power that governed the circulation, distribution, modification, and creation of the very tools they were learning to make as part of their vocation. The material connection shared around the world by UNIX-loving geeks to their source code is not a mere technical experience, but a social and legal one as well.Going forward, he notes, intellectual property can be expected to remain central to the recursive public--a tool and a barrier--as participants try to reframe and rewrite that law and the social practices that undergird compliance with or resistance to law.