back to article We need a Library of Congress – but for the digital world

The word hacker, for most people, means a youth in a hoodie turning off power stations with a sticker-encrusted laptop. This annoys those who know that the true hacker ethos is to make stuff do things it was not designed to do, with bonus points for charm, ingenuity, and the maximum effect for the work put in.   That ethos is …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "make stuff do things it was not designed to do"

    I disagree.

    Hackers cannot make something do a thing it wasn't designed to do.

    Hackers make things do something that the original maker did not intend, but included the functionality anyway and didn't think about it.

    A hacker cannot make an RPi shoot a laser beam, but he can eventually reprogram it to take over the local network, and maybe access the CCTV records.

    A hacker is not a wizard, he's just someone who looks at the equipment available and disregards whatever artificial constraints the maker thought he was imposing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "make stuff do things it was not designed to do"

      Well, yes; but rather often "not designed to do" is used to mean a default not "not explicitly (or deliberately) designed to do",

      As a somewhat tangential non-IT example, I can use my table knives as screwdrivers (assuming sufficiently compatible screw heads), but it'd be a stretch to say that a screwdriver functionality was part of the task the knives were designed to do, even you were to credit me with surprisingly high levels of kitchen-table hackery :-)

      1. HildyJ Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: "make stuff do things it was not designed to do"

        Just to note, there is a term for that. You are a 'life hacker'. There's a whole (Internet) sub-culture devoted to it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "make stuff do things it was not designed to do"

          I find the concept of being a "life hacker" hilarious.

          "Look; i'm able to use my intellect to use tools!"

          Wow. You've successfully unlocked the "I can do things the Neanderthals managed" feat that we used to call "being alive".

    2. steelpillow Silver badge

      Re: "make stuff do things it was not designed to do"

      "Hackers make things do something that the original maker did not intend, but included the functionality anyway and didn't think about it"

      Hackers also make things do something that the original maker screwed over or left out, whether by accident or design.

      A hacker is just someone who looks at the equipment available, goes "I wonder if I could..." and dives in.

  2. Andy J

    The Library of Congress already has this in hand

    For copyright to be protectable in a court case in the USA, the work has first to be registered with the US Copyright Office, part of the same Library of Congress mentioned in the title of this piece. This applies to computer programs. Therefore as far as major branded (eg Windows3.1 or MSDOS) software is concerned there is already an archive in existence, at least as far as software produced in the USA is concerned. More details on what has to be deposited with the Copyright Office to gain registration here.

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

      True, but I believe what the article is proposing is not so much a (static) library but an interactive museum

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

      In the UK the libraries of deposit are the British Library & the Bodleian in Oxford (not sure if Cambridge also gets a copy). I believe TCD library serves that purpose in Ireland.

      The libraries might serve a useful purpose for proving publication but it seems unlikely that ant oher proof would be ignored in court. My local history group has published a number of books with a small print run and we certainly couldn't afford to spare a couple of copies; we're out of print too quickly without that.

      1. Andy J

        Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

        The Legal Depsoit Libraries Act 2003 is mainly concerned with works published on paper. The Act does allow for regulations to be made requiring the deposit of "a copy of any computer program and any information necessary in order to access the work, and a copy of any manual and other material that accompanies the work and is made available to the public". So far this power has not been invoked. However section 7 of the Act allows the Legal Deposit Libraries to pro-actively make copies of anything they consider relevant found on the internet (cf the Internet Archive). See the Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print Works) Regulations 2013 for further details.

      2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

        Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

        The UK "copyright libraries" are: the British Library, the Bodleian (Oxford Uni), Cambridge University, Trinity College Dublin, University of Wales, and the University of Scotland. The British Library insists on receiving a copy of all published books etc. The other libraries have the option of insisting on a copy.

        With modern printing facilities, it is easy to order a few extra copies at a sensible price: there is no need to carry a huge stock or to have a huge initial print run.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

          University of Scotland National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

          I had a moment of "when the hell did we get a national university then?" there ;)

          1. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

            Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

            Apols for my mistake. Thanks for the correction.

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

          "With modern printing facilities, it is easy to order a few extra copies at a sensible price: there is no need to carry a huge stock or to have a huge initial print run."

          Maybe you haven't been involved in small scale publishing.

          We typically have a print run of 100* which means that the deposit libraries would take up 6% of it. I looked into using print-on-demand services to put our back catalogue back into print. The price we'd have had to sell at would have been at least half as much again as the original prices which had produced a small surplus. We now have several of them downloadable as PDF instead.

          I wonder why UK copyright still specifies TCD. I'd have expected it to have been changed to QUB a century ago although the old library would have run out of storage space long before the 1960s.

          * The exception was one which had a much larger than normal print run and sold badly. I think it might have been the reason the treasurer subsequently limited to 100. Depositing half a dozen copies would be no problem but it might alert TPTB to our existence.

          1. Andy J

            Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

            "I wonder why UK copyright still specifies TCD. I'd have expected it to have been changed to QUB a century ago although the old library would have run out of storage space long before the 1960s."

            The reason Trinity College remained a Legal Deposit Library is that the UK and Ireland have a reciprocal arrangement (see section 198 of the Irish Copyright Act 2000 and section 13 of the UK Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003), whereby publishers in Ireland are required to supply a deposit copy to the British Library. However, I agree that it would be fair to include Queens Belfast as an LDL.

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

              When I arrived in QUB in 67 they'd just had a new library. In fact they also had a new science library which is the one I was familiar with There were legends about the internals of the old one. A year or so later a graduate from Trinity arrived and was very sniffy about Queens having a new library with lots of empty shelves, clearly not having worked out that the reason you build a new, bigger library, is to give yourself more shelf space.

    3. swm Silver badge

      Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

      "For copyright to be protectable in a court case in the USA, the work has first to be registered with the US Copyright Office"

      Yes, but in the US the registration can take place just before the lawsuit.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: The Library of Congress already has this in hand

        Well, sort of. Normally the lawsuit has to wait until registration is granted.

        In 2019's Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com SCOTUS resolved a circuit dispute over whether copyright was actionable when registration had been applied for, or only when it was granted. They came to the conclusion that 17 U.S.C. §411(a)'s language only makes sense if the intent of Congress was that a civil action could be pursued only if registration had been granted or refused. (Note that latter exception – you can sue for infringement if the LoC refuses to grant your registration, provided you inform the LoC, though winning such a suit would presumably be an uphill battle.)

        So in the US, copyright attaches as soon as the work is completed (the Copyright Office has used the phrase "when the pen leaves the paper"), but civil action requires registration, which can be applied for at any time, but may take a while to complete (one way or the other).

  3. Howard Sway Silver badge

    We need a Library of Congress – but for the digital world

    It's a fine idea, but how do you define "making accessible" and "borrowing"? Presumably hosting the files of all published software and letting people download them.

    Which is great if you want a quick go on Manic Miner. I can see objections from the publishers of, say, the Oracle database.`

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: We need a Library of Congress – but for the digital world

      To be fair, the publishers of Oracle database have objections to everything except money.

      For economically significant commercial software a compulsory escrow system would be a good idea, however.

  4. steelpillow Silver badge

    What is this Library of Congress thing?

    I sent a couple of books to it once so they could gather dust, but I have never had any other dealings with it and do not intend to.

    The British Library now, that is a place I would want to find something a bit more lively than paywalled digitised microfiche that is not even text-searchable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What is this Library of Congress thing?

      I've found copies of source code, the manuals and software on 5'1/4" disk that were filed in the British Library; that are still in (limited) production use today.

      Nationalised industries at the time had obligations to file such stuff with them. One of the oddities is as one of the spin offs of said nationalised industries; on requesting a access to the file we had to prove our entitlement to access it. What am I supposed to do, pull copies of the legislation that created the new companies out of the old institutions?

      The British Library is well intended but it's functionality is questionable.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: What is this Library of Congress thing?

      The catalog and digital collections provided by the Library of Congress are very useful to many researchers, and the Librarian of Congress is the only bulwark we have against further abuse of the DMCA (since the Librarian periodically approves exemptions to that particular piece of legislative crap).

      And people can, in fact, visit the LoC and read actual physical books from their collections.

  5. DS999 Silver badge

    Doing it for computer software is fine

    So long as someone writes an emulator for the system in question (which gets easier the fewer different operating systems there are) that old software can run.

    But as people try to push web apps instead of something that runs on your phone or PC, there's a real problem. If it references something external, you have to capture and emulate that as well.

    And what about cloud apps? You can't make a copy of that to save for an emulator, when it gets pulled off AWS it is gone forever.

    It is going to become more and more difficult to preserve our digital history.

  6. Dan 55 Silver badge

    BBC Domesday Project

    The BBC Domesday Project is the classic example of losing data, but not because there was anything wrong with the project itself.

    All the original code and data was passed to the National Data Archive in the mid-80s but they failed to archive it, the someone made a website reconstruction of one of the disks in the early 2000s with running from the National Archives at Kew, but they also failed to archive it and it was lost when he died. source

    Then the BBC did a web-based version in 2011 and the National Archives managed to archive it, but search doesn't work so it's pretty useless.

    It's been down to the Cambridge Centre for Computing History Museum and Domesday 86 (set up by two people) to archive it and the results are better than the governmental bodies who are supposed to be doing this.

    So the article is right in that it's better to leave it to people who know what they're doing, but some of these people should be gainfully employed by national archives.

    1. Trollslayer
      Flame

      Re: BBC Domesday Project

      Who selects the members?

      1. GrahamRJ

        Re: BBC Domesday Project

        If it was run competently, one person who can answer the question "have you done anything like this before?" in the affirmative, with evidence of positive results. And who then has the budget and authority to hire a small number of people to do what they know needs doing. And with a reasonably well-bounded definition of what "success" looks like.

  7. FriendInMiami

    Old warfare still kills and injures

    Various militaries used the software of their day for such things as directing where bombs might be intended to be dropped, where mother bombs might disperse bomblets or small land mines, where ships might rendezvous, and much more. They archived data for software that ran on equipment where no one publicly has any of the old equipment and the data is in effect in limbo, if maintained at all. Yet for purposes of making land safe for the inhabitants, or for finding the odd old wreck, perhaps with human remains, this kind of tech needs to preserved, too. The problem is, of course, that a lot of the "work" done reflects very poorly on the reputations of the governments engaged in overseas warfare at the time. E.g.,

    Addressing Unexploded Ordnance

    Ordnance Dropped Estimated Percentage of Ordnance that Did Not Explode Casualties

    (Injuries and Fatalities) Land Contaminated by UXO and Cluster Munitions

    Cambodia 2.7 million tons, including 26 million cluster bomblets 25% 64,931 people 176 sq miles

    Laos Over 2.1 million tons 33% 25,000 people Surveys confirm at least 3,270 square miles, with estimates much higher

    Vietnam 8 million tons 10% Over 100,000 people 23,670 square miles

    https://www.stimson.org/2021/ramp-up-u-s-engagement-with-war-legacies-in-southeast-asia/

  8. ecofeco Silver badge

    Already exists

    The actual Library of Congress AND The Internet Archives have you covered and Google Archives fills in some of the cracks.

    What's yer point?

  9. Tron

    Haec omnia transeunt.

    You can recap hardware up to a point, and software is just numbers. The toughest bit is the storage medium. NOS 5¼" disks are getting on a bit. Institutional libraries can store material of 'grey area' copyright in their private case, but they have limited time and resources. Regularly porting piles of software on to fresh FD, HD or CD is just not possible. And most of them are now working at home for much of the week, away from their collections. Moving programs on to more reliable/modern storage is do-able, but it is easier to buy a memory card adaptor for an Apple II or Speccy than for a Jupiter Ace or Aquarius. For 8-bit machines, print outs on acid-free paper may be the best option for longevity without maintenance. Even that is a huge fiddle for commercial software in machine code that was designed to never be LISTed. Beyond 48K, it will get a bit long. The best computer museums try to keep some machines going, but they were not built to last four decades. Like us, they are getting old. All this requires staff and cash. There are lots of rich people in tech, but their cash all too rarely finds its way to preserving old tech.

    Loads of preservation can be achieved, but only with financial assistance. Hopefully some of that cash will come before the software is unrecoverable.

    Virtual alternatives can be produced, but they do not replicate the real experience of having your 8-bit system, a CRT TV (scarce themselves now) and a real cassette recorder with software on tapes. Especially for anything by Ultimate Play the Game.

    Check out Jim Austin's collection in York: https://www.computermuseum.org.uk/

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