The Text in the Machine: American Copyright Law and the Many Natures of Software, 1974–1978


This article is a case study in the history of software copyright in the United States from 1974 to 1978. It focuses on the work of a group called the National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works. CONTU, as this group was known, faced the problem of choosing which ontology of software—by which I mean a conception of the nature of software as an invention—should serve as the conceptual underpinning for the law of software copyright. In particular, the commissioners needed to decide whether computer programs are texts, machines, means to communicate with machines, or many of these things at once. CONTU’s history shows how the discursive emergence of software as a new technology has been shaped by the convergence of commercial interests, the transmission of technical knowledge to lay audiences, and idiosyncratic views on the nature of information technology and human creativity.