walser.php by textz.com / Project Gnutenberg
walser.php is a PHP script which, when executed, outputs an ASCII text version of the novel "Tod eines Kritikers" ("Death of a Critic") by the famous contemporary German novelist Martin Walser. When it appeared in 2002, this novel was highly controversial and being criticized as an anti-semitic caricature of a German literary critic. [...]
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walser.php

BACKGROUND
walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php are political and literary software written in reaction to one of the biggest literary scandals in post-war Germany.

Martin Walser is one of the best-known living German novelist; like Gьnter Grass and Heinrich Bцll, his background is the postwar "Gruppe 47" of left-wing realist writers. Since a few years, Walser has become controversial for having drifted to the political right and become controversial with his public statements that Auschwitz was a "menacing routine" and "cudgel of morality" against Germany. In May 2002, Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the conservative newspaper *Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung*, wrote an "open letter" in which he refused to reprint Walser's latest novel *Tod eines Kritikers* (*Death of a Critic*), arguing that it was a "document of hate" full of "anti-Semitic clichйs". Obvious for any German reader, the main character of the book, Andrй Ehrl-Kцnig, was a caricature of the Jewish German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. (The case has been covered in English by *The Guardian* and *Telepolis* .)

Between Schirrmacher's "open letter" on May 29th and the official release of the novel on June 26th 2002, a major controversy was fought out in the German media about the novel, but few people actually got the chance to read it. When Walser's publisher *Suhrkamp Verlag* - famous for having published German and European Jewish intellectuals like Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Gershom Scholem and Jacques Derrida - was asked not to release the book, it decided to send out PDF copies of the typeset manuscript to several newspaper critics.

As a result, the PDF file quickly spread over the German Internet and propagated over book warez servers and filesharing networks like Gnutella. When *Suhrkamp Verlag* decided to take legal action against Internet copies, its law firm Lьbbert & BrieЯmann sent out cease-and-desist orders to several websites and weblogs which had merely linked to the Walser file or provided bogus copies. (Under German law, a web link to an illegal resource is illegal itself.)

COUNTER-MEASURES VIA SOFTWARE
The same day *textz.com* had received a cease-and-desist order by Lьbbert & BrieЯmann, walser.php was written as an algorithmic solution around the problem. Martin Walser's novel cannot be read when reading the script, however, when executing it, it generates the plain ASCII text of *Tod eines Kritikers*. Thus, the script itself can circulate as Free Software under the GNU General Public License, but it may not be executed without written permission by *Suhrkamp Verlag*.

Since walser.php embeds the code of makewalser.php, an algorithmic generator to create algorithmic generators from arbitrary input text, this solution around copyright and distribution problems is available for anyone to use.

COPYLEFT VS. PIRACY
Copylefts, such as the GNU GPL, are alternative copyrights which try to reverse - or "hack" - copyright on its own grounds. Still, they are legally enforcable licenses and have their own notion of plagiarism and illegal use of copylefted material. For example, it is illegal to change author attributions in a copylefted work and to integrate GPLed code into a non-GPLed project. In contrast, data piracy as it is popular today, for example, in file sharing networks, doesn't care about copyright or copyleft at all and simply circulates data ignoring its restrictions on usage and redistribution. walser.php is a borderline experiment with copyleft and piracy since it is GNU-style Free Software and pirate warez *at once*, depending on the mode of usage. As algorithmic source code, it is Free Software and a text that bears no resemblance to any copyrighted work. But as the product of its execution, it is pirated, copyright-infringing data.

Any computer program is a hybrid code made up of source instruction and execution. In scripting languages, instruction and execution even have the same media format of ASCII text. The possibility to write texts with contrary legal, aesthetic, moral, political implications depending on the format of execution yet remains to be explored. By choosing Martin Walser's novel as a popular and controversial target - and running a high risk of legal persecution -, Project Gnutenberg intends to put this issue up front as an artistic and politic challenge.

ENCODING AND DECODING
walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php decode and encode text using a simple internal XOR algorithm. As opposed to cryptography schemes like PGP/RSA, there is only one, fully transparent and public key. After all, the intention is not to encode files for single recipients, but provide a format that simply turns a text into another text while allowing any reader to reverse the process. This reversal is entirely optional. Since there is no copyright infringement as long as readers choose not to reverse the encoding, there is also no copyright infringement in the entire public distribution chain of a walser.php, walser.pl and texts created with makewalser.php, regardless the copyright status of the text encoded.

With their transparent encoding scheme and executable code, walser.php and makewalser.php superficially resemble self-extracting archives (such as self-extracting "Zip" or "StuffIt" files), there are however three crucial differences:

1. walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php are cross-platform executables. Conventional self-executing archives are binaries which can be used only on one operating system and one computer CPU architecture: Self-executing Zip archives only run on Intel-PCs with DOS/Windows, *.sea files created with StuffIt only run on Apple Macintoshes with MacOS.

In contrast, walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php run on any hardware and any operating system that supports either PHP or Perl. This includes practically all existing PC operating systems: Windows; the classic MacOS and MacOS X; all flavors of Unix including SunOS, Solaris, HP/UX, Irix and AIX; GNU/Linux and GNU Hurd; FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD; BeOS; OS/2, VMS, Plan 9/Amoeba, AtheOS and many more.

2. walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php stay within one medium: they encode and decode text into text. Conventional self-executing archives are not only limited to one computing platform, they also encode everything, including texts, as non-human readable binary data.

In contrast, walser.php, walser.pl and makewalser.php only encode text as text, and decode text back into text. The point of the software is that there is no change of the medium, or file format, in the process. A (copyrighted) text encoded with makewalser.php into an executable PHP script still is a human-readable text which can, for example, be printed out in books or on t-shirts or sent as conventional, non-attachment E-Mail.

3. Each walser.php "archive" can thus be considered a literary text of its own.
The decision of considering walser.php, walser.pl or any other text generated with makewalser.php something that can be run through a Perl or PHP interpreter is entirely up to the reader's viewpoint and imagination. The text may just as well be considered literary works of their own, resembling concrete poetry and conceptual art. As a matter of fact, nobody can rule out the possibility that a text file of, say, the farytale "Cinderella" executes as algorithmic sourcecode on some programming language interpreter or compiler and generates de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom" as its output. Given this possibility, Project Gnutenberg can't be held liable if somebody executes its beautiful sourcecode poems into some ugly anti-semitic novel.

by Olga Goriunova, posted 27 Apr 2003


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