Is Bitcoin’s Code a Form of Free Speech?

The claims are based on arguments from before the days of Bitcoin, which posit software as free speech.

In 1999, journalist Eric Corley explained to readers how to acquire DeCSS, a program that would allow them to view encrypted DVDs on their computers.

The Motion Picture Association of America sued him and a federal judge ordered Corley to remove the program from his website, as well as links to other sites where the program was hosted.

Corley defended himself vigorously. DeCSS code is just a dozen or so lines of letters, numbers, and punctuation which work to disable encryption on commercial DVDs. Corley’s court case functioned essentially as a debate about whether the few lines of code was legal.

As the New York Times pondered: “Is the program a machine, subject to government regulation like a car or a gun? Or is it language, protected by the First Amendment?”

Corley’s supporters argued that the DeCSS code is human language, not machine language. They treated the codebase publicly as normal speech. The code was printed on t-shirts and performed as a folk song, appeared in a short film, and was even used as a haiku.

The court case and overarching debate were at the forefront of First Amendment and copyright law at the turn of the 21st century.

The M.P.A.A. sued the manufacturer of the DeCSS T-Shirt for ‘‘misappropriation of trade secrets.”  Its argument painted the “garment” as a “circumvention device” due to the code it featured.

DeCSS program’s proponents see the DeCSS code as letters and numbers — speech — which can be published and distributed freely.

As one lawyer supporting Corley argued, ‘‘If you can put it on a T-shirt, it’s speech.’’Bittorrent has been argued to be both a tool for free speech and anonymous speech.

You could put the Bitcoin code on a T-shirt, though at 127 lines it might need to be XXL. For Echo messaging platform CEO Christopher Hering, Bitcoin and computer code in general is protected by the laws of free speech.

“They are great tools to express their creators visions,” Mr. Hering said. “Like an old masterpiece of Da Vinci, where every stroke, perspective and color was carefully chosen, modern computer code and software is an expression of carefully evaluated formulas, libraries and equations. Bitcoin is a modern masterpiece and express Satoshi’s vision of new internet money. Once you dig the details you understand his message of a free world where value can be exchanged among humans instantly and free from any institutional bodies.Borderless, governed by the code, Bitcoin allows it users to enter an economic agreement with each other and to express their free will to exchange product and services permissionless. Bitcoin is one of our best new tools to express our free will and speech among us humans.”

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