Code as a work of art

Continuing the discussion from Private equity looters startled to be called out by name in Taylor Swift award-acceptance speech:


I take it you are not a fan of If Hemingway Wrote JavaScript then?

I am of the opinion that code* is a language. One that might be lacking in tenses, but it does have nouns, verbs, and so on. With effort, people could communicate with it, much like using Latin or Esperanto.

To say that code is not art, or that it cannot be subjected to copyright is a fallacy. Code underlies the same rules as anything created in any other language. It can be quoted, published, plagiarised, and so on. This is why licensing is so important.

Since we have such strong opinions about this, let’s air them here and stop hijacking the Taylor Swift thread.

*Code meaning any language we have created to deliver instructions to machines.


Code is written in formal languages, which are different to natural languages in several aspects. One of which is ambiguity (if you don’t count non-standard Fortran), which is a main ingredient in many works of art.

I’m sure you would agree that most formal languages would not be a medium that one would use to create poems as the “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning”, which apparently was able to evoke a strong emotional response in the audience. :grinning:

And that is the key point here: Code is not the medium of choice to communicate emotions or insights to others.

You can create art with code, the code then is in most cases still merely instructions to a machine. See my example in the other thread about code that may be art, because the code itself is intended to communicate something to a human, and not to a machine.

What I meant to say about copyright is that in Germany most code is not considered to be above the threshold of originality to be protected by copyright. You’re still not allowed to copy a whole library or software and use them, though.

The German Urhebergesetz (Copyright code of law) disagrees. According to §69 of that law, a computer program may enjoy copyright if it is an individual work which can be recognised as the result of a creator. Yes, even source code can be copyrighted.

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I never doubted that code can be copyrighted, did I say that? It’s still pretty much decided on a case by case basis, see e.g. this lawyer‘s explanation:

Edit: this explanation from 2013 does not cover the update to the law in 2017!

Ah, after actually reading the current version of the law, I see what you mean. I was totally unaware of the change introduced in 2017, that‘s a significant difference.

Sorry for the confusion. You are correct, and I was mistaken.

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Glad we can reach an agreement.

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I once wrote a function in javascript that would take two vectors input in exponential format in a text field on a form, parse them, calculate their cross product, and convert the result into a floating point and return the value as a text string. Pretty straightforward, and I did it in six lines of code or so. It was beautiful though. It now resides on a WINXP lab computer, used maybe once every six months.

I‘m curious, what kind of beauty are you referring to?

Was it beautiful because your solution was obvious and elegant, even without any documentation?

Was it beautiful because it was driven by tests and you were amazed by the result?

Was it beautiful because it was so robust that any conceivable input would lead to a meaningful response?

What does beauty have to do with art?

Are we only in agreement about code and copyright, or also about the relationship between code and art?

I tend to take the Dadaist approach, and feel that art is very, very subjective. You cannot make a definition of art that all people will agree to. Think of John Cage’s experiments with music, how his message was that any composition was music, even if the entire piece was just a pianist sitting in front of his piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds. Or of writers who cleverly publish a shopping list as a poem.

To say one program is art and another isn’t is akin to declaring one short burst of text a work of art, the other just text.

Code is simply a media. And art should not be defined by which media it is in, lest we make the mistake I have seen many people make, of assuming comics are for kids.


Hoo boy. Either you are a geek, a guerrilla philosopher or a German. This is the sort of thing Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Sartre, and so on have argued. All the way back to Aristotle and his buddies.

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Of course it is subjective what an individual considers to be art, or not. We can still arrive at a definition of what art is.

That does not answer the question, does it?

I see no shame in being a German, guerilla philosopher or geek, BTW.

Beauty in the dictionary is described as a quality that gives pleasure or satisfaction, I‘m not necessarily looking for that in art. There’s enough of that in nature.

Art that can be visceral, uncomfortable, brutal, disturbing. Not beautiful at all.

And a tool. You would not say a hammer is art, even though it was used to sculpt a statue. Code is often not the medium, software is. If you translate the code to another language (e.g. bytecode or machine code), the artwork remains the same.

Mostly this. There was an additional constraint that the entire program (not just this function) could not exceed 50kB

Not so much

Wasnt the goal here.

I guess I found it memorable because rather than being a clunky piece of spaghetti code that would see wide distribution, it was an elegant piece of code that almost nobody would ever see.

I’ll leave the answer to “what is art” to the philosophers.


I doubt it. You are a wee bit too happily argumentative for me at the moment. Because we are now delving into the differences between art and craft and Art and so on. Semiotics versus artwork. And all this before my third coffee.

Hauptsach’ i hab mei Rua!

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Sag‘s halt glei!

Bassd scho.

EDIT: one of my favourite differences between Franconians and Bavarians is this mentality. The Bavarian “Hauptsach’ i hab mei Ruah” (“The main thing is you leave me in peace”) is one thing, but the Franconian has to add “Abba mei Rechd will i habn!” (“But I want my rights!”). The Franconian can be quite combative about it. Another reason why I feel happier in Munich than I was in Bayreuth. :beer:

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FWIW, I never looked back after moving from Munich to Berlin.

Some code does border on art, but I’m not sure all code is art for the reason that often it’s built with functionality in mind and the intersection between functionality and art is often narrow. I’ve made code that was visually appealing even if you didn’t run it but I couldn’t say it was ‘art.’