In Two Bits, Christopher M. Kelty investigates the history and cultural significance of Free Software, revealing the people and practices that have transformed not only software, but also music, film, science, and education.

Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty shows how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge after the arrival of the Internet. Two Bits also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public” public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

Drawing on ethnographic research that took him from an Internet healthcare start-up company in Boston to media labs in Berlin to young entrepreneurs in Bangalore, Kelty describes the technologies and the moral vision that binds together hackers, geeks, lawyers, and other Free Software advocates. In each case, he shows how their practices and way of life include not only the sharing of software source code but also ways of conceptualizing openness, writing copyright licenses, coordinating collaboration, and proselytizing for the movement. By exploring in detail how these practices came together as the Free Software movement from the 1970s to the 1990s, Kelty also shows how it is possible to understand the new movements that are emerging out of Free Software: projects such as Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to create an online scholarly textbook commons.

Christopher M. Kelty is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. (In the fall of 2008, I will start a new position at UCLA in the Center for Genetics and Society and the Department of Information Studies).


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Dear Mr. Kelty,

I’m taking a graduate class (“Global Internet”) at the American U. of Paris, and our assignment for Tuesday is the Intro and Chapter 8 of your book to read, along with reviewing your site, as well at the GNU Manifesto.

Each week we post our comments on our course message board and discuss them in class. In my comments I wrote that the GNU Manifesto brings up the issue of sharing and how this is accomplised. In Chapter 8, I found similarities here, where instead of the idea of sharing, you use the word coding. You write about who has access to the code, who can modify it, and under what conditions. The advent of the Creative Commons Attribution provides access to anyone who wishes to engage interactively with others’ works. (These are watered down versions of what I wrote.)

I understand the purpose of Two Bits, and the thesis behind the other assignments, however, I found a fundamental problem with the idea of “sharing” as promoted here. At the bottom of your About page there is a link “Material on this site released under a Creative Commons By-NC-SA 3.0 License. On this page, you are encouraged to “share” and “remix” the work, but only if you “attribute” it, and that the work you create is “noncommercial” and “shared alike.”

I understand that there is the element that you can change a text, but you still have to refer back to the original and as the Two Bits site indicates, leave the author’s name on the work. Given this then, how is the Creative Commons Attribution basically any different than citing a work that you write about? Also, who has the right to be writing about things that they may not have official training in? I found that to allow this would undermine the work that individuals have accomplished in order to receive the title, and the right, to be circulating information (based on their acquired knowledge/diplomas) in published works.

Looking forward to a possible response!

Best regards,

AUP, Global Communications 2009

Charlotte on Nov 02 08 at 12:50 pm


This is a good question, but requires that you know something about how copyright law normally works to understand it.

If I had put the site and book online without the CC-BY-NC license on it (i.e. relying only on the full power of copyright), you would have no rights whatsover to do anything with it. Arguably, you would only barely have the right to read it, since in doing so you would be making an unauthorized copy. You would certainly have no right to re-distribute it, change it, or remix it, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

So the CC license gives you the right to do that, and yes, it does that subject to certain restrictions– that you attribute the source work to me (though you would own the copyright on the modified work), and that you refrain from competing with Duke. You retain your “fair use” rights (which generally covers the right to cite a work in another context) regardless of whether there is a license or not… but fair use is a tricky and limited doctrine… it should cover more than just citation, and in some ways the CC license is just a clear and explicit legal green light to you to exercise, at minimum, your fair use rights.

A more radical gesture would be to dedicate the book and the writings here to the public domain, which would in principle mean that you could do whatever you want with it, no restrictions.

However, and this was one reason Creative Cmmons was created, US legal doctrine has no specific rules about when something is in the public domain, and so even if I say “This is in the public domain” it isn’t necessarily legally valid. If I were evil i could turn on you… after you used my work I could say “no, no, I didn’t really mean it, I own the copyright” and I would probably win in court. So, CC is necessary in order to legally defend my right to share this work… otherwise the law forces me to keep it to myself.

Christopher Kelty on Nov 03 08 at 5:36 pm

FWIW here are one geek’s thoughts after reading Two Bits: href=”

Thatcher Ulrich on Jan 31 09 at 7:28 pm

I am interested in the geeks that you spoke to in developing and/or non-democratic nations. It seems as though your argument for recursive publics, for geeks who have the desire and time to develop software that is “free”, and for such a shared sentiment across national boundaries is perfectly rational in free, fairly wealthy worlds. However, your statement that the Internet is open in the same way to everyone (pg 306) is not exactly true when we consider the poor rice farmer in China or even the well educated computer technician in Afghanistan. Did you find, in discussions with geeks from more remote or less democratic regions, that such concepts are shared? Is the recursive public something that transcends digital divides, political ideology, and cultural norms?
Thank you,

Kristin on Apr 12 09 at 2:07 am

@kristin. This is a question I get a lot, and the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, of course not. It’s simply undeniable that there are millions of people who don’t have access to a “recursive public” or maybe even the opportunity to find a way in. Digital divides, imbalances of power, and massive suffering are quite likely to continue regardless of the success of Free Software. However, these same people probably don’t have access to functioning democratic representation of any kind at all. In some ways that frame for the question is too broad. The internet and free software are not panaceas for what ails society. They do have very distinctive political features, but this doesn’t mean that those features are everywhere or everywhere adopted.

On the other hand, I do think that every nation, no matter how poor or ‘undemocratic’ (for whatever definition you give) has a segment of people who do have access to, and do care about free software for all the reasons I detail in the book. And I do make a strong claim that cultural differences of a conventional sort (language, history, class, race, etc.) are not the differences that make a difference. Or to put it differently, the fact that people find each other through the internet and free software (and all the practices and norms and tools that entails) is a more significant feature of their filiation than anything else. That is their culture, and the culture that matters to them. I’ve met, corresponded with, or can think of examples of such hackers from just about everywhere. Notable (and predictable) exceptions are: Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Greenland and various pacific island nations may also be exceptions, but that’s not really your point I think… :)

Christopher Kelty on Apr 12 09 at 4:16 am


one downside of the comment press software I’m using on the site is that it is imperfect, it tends to disappear certain comments so that they don’t show up where they are, like yours. But this is a nice object lesson for your question. While it was easy for me to install the software and configure it to look the way I like, I cannot fix this particular bug in the software. However, this is because I am not that smart. If I were smarter, or if I got together with other wordpress+commentpress users, we could fix the bug and release a new version that works better. This is the “recursive” part of recursive publics: that one can open up layer after successive layer of detail and see how things work. This is not always the case with Web 2.0 software. I can dig only so far into Facebook or MySpace, even less into YouTube. This is why I emphasize the need to break apart these phenomena into their component practces (what exactly goes into a “web 2.0″ project? Are the practices same as or similar to Free Software? Which ones?). Only by doing that can you start to answer the question of whether Web 2.0 technologies can also create recursive publics…


On Apr 13, 2009, at 8:05 PM, Heather Wiltse wrote:

New comment on your post #16 “Chapter 2: Protestant Reformers, Polymaths, Transhumanists”
Author : Heather Wiltse (IP: ,
E-mail :
I like the description of geeks as people who create new forms of political order that are bound up with sociotechnical systems. This seems to have some similarities to recent developments in the space generally referred to as ‘Web 2.0′ or ‘social media’, except that the level of expertise required to ‘build new things’ is now much lower. Anyone can create a blog and open up a space for social interaction, for example. And even though starting a blog is a much humbler enterprise than building an operating system, the proliferation of social media, when viewed on a larger scale, seems to collectively represent in some sense a new type of social space. Is this a fair and/or worthwhile comparison?

Christopher Kelty on Apr 14 09 at 3:46 am

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