Code as Free Speech – II

In my previous post, I called code a “work product,” and a friend asked if I didn’t consider paintings and books work products too.

Yes. A painting is a work product, and a book… so I need to refine what I mean. Code is like printed circuitry. It’s almost exactly like it, but it’s a layer of abstraction closer to speech because it’s presented in symbolic representation rather than a manufactured product. Regardless, the code and the printed circuits are integral components of a larger device whose quality of function is based on the quality of those components. So code and circuit designs are intellectual property, but to consider them “speech” is – in my opinion – a conceit that devalues the truth.

Freedom of speech and expression was the first of Saint Franklin’s “four freedoms.” The Bill of Rights elaborates all kinds of cool stuff, like the freedom to maintain an M-4 Sherman tank in my garage (fully loaded)…or a HumVee I suppose. But calling computer code “speech” collapses the function and intention of the code. Perhaps a suitable analogy would be found in musical notation. Certainly the use of a player piano roll and compiled code are identical.

Am I making sense here? Is there any reason to treat the creation of code any different from the way we treat the creation of music? Yet if, in an attempt perhaps to one-up the 1812 overture, a 21st century composer wrote a score that included the stunning aural effects of thermonuclear explosions as a percussive finale, the community might want to regulate the performance. Same goes for code I think.

Code is property, not speech. But it can enhance our self expression. Code is like a sightless person’s cane. It’s a tool and a signifier, but it’s not expression or speech.

Posted in Tech Tools

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