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<nettime> Journal of High Tech. Law review of A Hacker Manifesto
McKenzie Wark on Tue, 16 Nov 2004 07:05:17 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Journal of High Tech. Law review of A Hacker Manifesto

A Hacker Manifesto
by McKenzie Wark Cambridge,
Massachusetts, Harvard University Press,
2004, Paper: ISBN 0-674-01543-6
(Price $21.95) pp. 208.

Reviewed by Kyle Bjornlund
Journal of High Technology Law
Suffolk University Law School

As countless odd and interesting property
decisions demonstrate, significant resources
have been dedicated over the years to the
clarification of lines on a map, notes in a song,
or words in a sentence. Occasionally, a case or
movement appears that extends the bounds of
property ownership in a direction not yet seen
or understood.1 At present, a movement of such
significance is underway.

In A Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie
Wark discusses the impact of information
technology on the law, politics, and society.
Employing a critical theory-inspired vocabulary,
Wark’s Manifesto elucidates a contemporary
political movement in a quasi-Marxist
framework.  In the end, however, the appeal of
Wark’s Manifesto may well depend on how
the reader feels about Open Source theory and
the Free Software movement discussed below.2

Practically speaking, Wark’s discussion
of the interplay between social theory and
information technology is likely to intimidate.
Wark’s vocabulary is conceptual and
potentially incoherent to the uninitiated reader.
On the other hand, a reader familiar with recent
copyright, or copyleft, disputes is likely to
grasp and appreciate the depth of Wark’s
hacker philosophy. In any event, a brief primer
on both Open Source and Free Software is
likely to be beneficial for our discussion of
Wark’s Manifesto.

The Free Software movement, founded
by former software engineer Richard Stallman,
questions whether there is a natural right to
copyrights and other intellectual property
concepts. As a means of circumventing the
copyright mechanism, Stallman conceived of the
General Public License (GPL), which allows for
the free distribution of software covered by the
license.3   At the heart of the Free Software
movement is the ethic that software, and thus
information, should be freely accessible.4

Open Source, meanwhile, is distinguished
from the Free Software movement in that it
relates to the development and modification of
software.5 Proprietary software packages, like
Microsoft Windows, do not allow end users to
modify or customize code to meet the needs of
a particular operating system.  In contrast,
Open Source is nonproprietary and allows the
owner to modify code and customize the
operating system to their particular needs. Most
recently, litigation over the putative donation of
copyrighted code to an operating system
known as Linux resulted in a highly publicized
lawsuit between software manufacturer SCO
Group, Inc. and International Business

Although Wark only references Open
Source and Free Software in passing, the
underlying current in his Manifesto is that the
contemporary equivalent of a massive land-grab
is in progress throughout the United States and
around the world.  At issue, however, is not
land for farming or grazing, nor is it a property
interest in one’s own labor. Rather, Wark has
focused on the emergence of intellectual
property as a means of oppression.

According to Wark, a new ruling class
has emerged with the goal of controlling the use
and ownership interests associated with
intellectual property.  Wark alleges that the
"vectoral" class is employing intellectual
property constructs like patents, copyrights,
and trademarks to monopolize information.7  By
controlling how information is accessed and
utilized, the vectoral class has artificially created
a new scarce resource – information.8  One
need look no further than the Open Source
litigation referenced above for an example of
the vectoral classes’ legal maneuvering.

Building on the vocabulary employed by
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Wark likens
the vectoral class to the capitalist factory
owners and land rich real property owners of
Marx-era property conflicts.  The copyright and
patent, meanwhile, are the contemporary
equivalent of farmland and factories.  For
Wark, hackers are in some ways the equivalent
of peasant farmers and factory workers
because the vectoral class controls access to
the means of production, namely information.
Please note that Wark’s concept of a
hacker is distinguishable from the juvenile
delinquent stereotype. Rather, Wark perceives
hackers as individuals with the "desire to open
the virtuality of information," and an ethic of
"freedom and cooperation."  Unlike farmers
and factory workers, hackers are a unique class
with a productive potential independent of
either other workers or the vectoral class.

What makes hackers unique?
Information, the medium in which hackers
operate, is a "non-rivalrous" resource that
"knows no natural scarcity."  According to
Wark, hackers have the ability to produce
independently of tangible resources like land or
a factory, which should allow hackers to
operate "free from any constraint that is not self
imposed."  Although implausible to the cynic,
the success of the free operating system Linux
testifies to the incredible capacity of the
unfettered hacker.

In the end, Wark’s Manifesto will
resound with those familiar with the subject
matter.  Intellectual property litigators may not
welcome Wark’s perspective, but they may
well begin to understand a movement that
threatens to undermine the enforcement of
valuable patents and copyrights. Hackers, on
the other hand, in their own independent way,
may embrace a new vocabulary and principles
that will empower their own developing class to
change the bounds of property.

1 In the realm of property law, few disputes
outshine the protracted legal contest to
determine the ownership of an unfortunate red
fox.  Although the red fox was not a party in
Pierson v. Post, the carcass of the "noxious
beast" was the subject of a case that eventually
led to the annunciation of the contemporary
Rule of Capture.  See generally Pierson v.
Post, 3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am.Dec. 264 (N.Y.
Sup. Ct. 1805).

2 According to Wark, Open Source is a
development methodology rather than a social

3 See http://www.fsf.org/copyleft/gpl.html (last
visited October 2, 2004).

4 According to Stallman, free software is "about
liberty, not price." See
(last visited October 2, 2004).

5 Stallman further distinguishes Open Source
from Free Software by noting that free access
to software for the Open Source community is
merely a practical question to aid in the
advancement of software development, while to
the Free Software community free software is
an ethical necessity. See
for-freedom.html (last visited October 2,

6 See generally SCO Group, Inc. v.
International Business Machines Corp., No.
03-CV-0294, Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint
(D. Utah Mar. 25, 2003).  The litigation arose
after valuable copyrighted computer code from
the UNIX operating system allegedly owned by
SCO Group, Inc. (SCO) appeared in the Linux
operating system.  According to SCO, an
I.B.M. employee pilfered the code while the
two corporations worked together on a
development project.  A ruling in favor of SCO
threatens to extinguish the viability of Linux, the
GPL, and the practice of Open Source
software development.

7 Membership of the vectoral class is primarily
dependant on how an individual or group
positions itself between hackers and intellectual
property.  For example, Wark considers
writers to be hackers and publishers to be
members of the vectoral class.


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