Monday, January 05, 2009

Free software and Capitalism

Some people have the misconception that Free software is anti Corporation, anti capitalists.

When presented with that argument the best response is to recommend reading Richard Stallman's Essays. In particular page 18 and 28

Here the two excerpts:

"Since “free” refers to freedom, not to price, there is no contradiction between
selling copies and free software. In fact, the freedom to sell copies is crucial
"

"The free software philosophy rejects a specific widespread business practice, but
it is not against business. When businesses respect the users’ freedom, we wish
them success.
"

For me it is clear that the main spirit of Free software is neutral. Free software is not a business practice or a business model. It is a social movement.

Some people on the Free Software community may be anti capitalist, they may even be loud and radical but that doesn't define the whole community.

I personally believe that it reinforces the capitalistic principles of private ownership of, production and distribution of goods. Anyone that has the inclination and wits can join the Free enterprise taking advantage of Free Software. But it also reinforces the socialist principle of cooperation. It levels the playing field encouraging innovation. Success of Free software is based on supply and demand, and even there success is relative.

Regarding the Competition: What if in a marathon it were valid to put obstacles to your opponents, to make them trip and throw sand to their eyes, to have a "secret private shortcut". Would you consider it a fair competition?

Regarding Ownership:
Ownership is very well established in the Free software movement. The main point of contention is "What can you own?": Can you own Ideas?. For a good reflection on this issue I recommend listening to Who Owns Ideas?

Regarding Cooperation:
Capitalism does not have to be a win-lose equation. Free Software is always a win-win situation. What's even more important: It does not matter how much you contribute your own work and ideas, It is an absolute truth that you will get back many orders of magnitude more. Free software reinforces the principle that it does not matter the size of the slice, what matters is the size of the pie.

In conclusion: Neither socialist nor capitalist. Free software is a social system and whose resulting product may be distributed and controlled using any number of business and economic models.

4 comments:

Michael F said...

Whenever talking about Open Source it is my view that it is best to define which open source model you're talking about. While there is basically only one proprietary model there are several OSS licensing models.

Most of the OSS evangelists argue for GNU. While I do believe as time goes on OSS will become the rule instead of the exception I don't believe that GNU FOSS will be the future leader of OSS. Instead I believe that the BSD and Apache licenses will come to rule the day.

This model will allow business to collaborate on foundational code but then build their own private (or open) implementation of their product.

The place that GNU will thrive is in totally collaborative environments such as universities and government research.

At least that is how I see the future.

Raul Suarez said...

I agree about the models of Open Source, that's why I avoid that term and go through the pains of using the easily misinterpreted "Free Software".

I understand the practicality of using the BSD model in universities under the current value system. Where academic research leads to business opportunities. This is, it allows to make proprietary and own something that was created with public resources. Of course the justification is that this creates economic value that ultimately benefits society.

Free software (GNU) proposes a different value system, where it is unethical to make software proprietary.

They cannot be compared using the same value system but that's the mistake most people make. You cannot discuss the merits of the license without considering the values involved.

This also means that there is no right answer: Different people have different values. What is ethical for you may not be for someone else. That's why I think that all the models, including proprietary, will survive, even the ones we disagree with.

Thanks for your comments, good food for thought.

PaulBx1 said...

Raul, this point stuck in my craw:
"But it also reinforces the socialist principle of cooperation."

Funny, I thought both competition and cooperation were features of freedom and the free market, not of socialism. It's not cooperation when someone tells you to do it.

Other than that, a good article. Free software is not contrary to capitalism at all (as long as one does not violate contracts).

Raul Suarez said...

"It's not cooperation when someone tells you to do it."

Utopian socialism is voluntary.

Although you are totally right, socialism has many interpretations.