EMACS, grep, and UNIX: authorship, invention and translation in software by ChristopherKelty, Rice University. 2006-03-20.

The abstract:

“The UNIX operating system environment has achieved a ubiquity with no parallel in the software world. It began as a computer science experiment in the early 1970s, spread to universities around the world in the late 70s, became the darling of the computer industry in the 1980s, and (in its incarnation as GNU/Linux) helped launch the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s. More than simply being a story of the spread of a technology, UNIX has enabled the creation, growth and refinement of a mode of coding—designing, composing, writing and documenting of software—that has become a kind of lingua franca for geeks, hackers, scientists, engineers, and hobbyists alike. This paper explores two historical cases of software authorship related to UNIX which have implications for the meaning and practice of modern software coding: the case of the EMACS editor and the GNU General Public License and the case of the programming tool known as grep, which searches text using “regular expressions.” Both cases offer insight into the nature of contemporary invention and authorship on the realm of software programming.”

Selected concluding remarks:

“What is clear about this example […] is that the concept of regular expressions has become extremely stable, much like the oeuvre of Shakespeare. Indeed, there are probably considerably more copies of grep out there in the world’s computers than there are of the collected works of Shakespeare--by virtue of the ease of replication of this tool and its standard inclusion in operating systems. Should we identify these copies (which are, by the way, considerably less homogenous than Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and consist of a wide variety of derivatives and similar programs) as the container of the concept “regular expressions”? Or should we privelege the algebraic presentation of Kleene from 1956? Indeed, nothing less than a question of platonic idealism confronts this story. […]

“UNIX (and EMACS and grep alongside it) have evolved as relatively open objects, through which generations of computer engineering students, hackers and geeks, have come to understand, to memorize, and to reproduce the concept of “an operating system,” a “text editor,” or “regular expressions algorithms. The intersection of legal and social practices of authorizing, legitimizing, learning, copying, writing and recreating visible in the example of the EMACS controversy, is a paradigm case of the authorization not only of certain tools, ideas, algorithms or software--but of a process of authorization as well, one that is today clearly visible in the emergence of Free Software and Open Source Software.”