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The strange economics of open-source software (2015) (philipotoole.com)
34 points by alexrustic 82 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 11 comments

You know, for all of the people that complain about Communism/Marxism/Socialism -- Open Source Software, at the very least, IS Communism, Marxism, Socialism -- in practice...

Disclaimer: I do not believe in the absoluteness of any "ism" (Communism/Marxism/Socialism, etc.), I believe in neutrality, that everything's relative, and that "There's a time and a place for everything" (You know, like that old song by "The Byrds": "Turn!, Turn!, Turn!").

But, people who understand Open Source -- cannot deny the many ways that these "Communist/Marxist/Socialist" ideas

Have innumerably benefitted and helped and advanced our Capitalist economy...

Think of it this way, Silicon Valley wouldn't be half of what it is today -- without Open Source...

If we didn't have Open Source, we'd arguably be at least 10 years behind where we are today in the technological advancement curve...

I speak for no ideology...

I merely observe sometimes paradoxical truths...

(And yes, I think we all agree that Communism/Marxism historically has not scaled well for Governments... but that's a different non-Economic, non-Software discussion...)

> Open Source Software, at the very least, IS Communism, Marxism, Socialism – in practice…

I don’t think that’s true. Socialism tends to focus on socializing control of the means of production, defined specifically as the physical instruments that enable but (though they experience wear) are not consumed in production. Its true that Free Software ideology behind the (A)GPL can be seen as an analog to anarcho- (rather than state-) socialist ideology focussed not on the physical means of production (and whose advocates often have extremely high regard for physical property rights whether or not in means of production) but on software.

But “is analogous to a form of X different than what most people discussing X have in mind, with substantial changes in focal domain” is not the same thing as “is X in practice”.

> There’s a time and a place for everything” (You know, like that old song by “The Byrds”: “Turn!, Turn!, Turn!”)

Well, first recorded by the Limelighters, written (and also recorded early on) by Pete Seeger, and lyrics mostly attributed to King Solomon, but in any case a couple thousand years before the Byrds.

> Have innumerably benefitted and helped and advanced our Capitalist economy…

Even at the legal level, modern developed economies universally are variants of what has been called “the modern mixed economy”, which is a blend of capitalist and socialist elements (pure “capitalism” having fallen out of favor in the early-mid-20th Century.)

Its mostly still called “capitalism” because Soviet Communism became (and anchored “Socialism”, in many places, by extension as) a boogeyman lots of places not long before that, so identifying as “capitalist” against “socialists” and especially “communists” was common even among people who substantively opposed capitalism and advocated for reforms drawn directly out of socialist (and sometimes specifically Marxist Communist) ideology.

> I don’t think that’s true. Socialism tends to focus on socializing control of the means of production, defined specifically as the physical instruments that enable but (though they experience wear) are not consumed in production.

That's how the political-economic philosophies developed over the latter part of the 19th century and the 20th century as they grappled with praxis. But the original universal credo, which Marx only later popularized and which today is still the defining aspiration of anarchists, who otherwise can't agree on much of anything else (excepting anti-statism?), was "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". That's a darned good abstract description of the FOSS community. Though, software duplication has de minimis (if not zero) marginal cost so I'm not sure what substantive implications there are in terms of organizing traditional industries or regarding the basic efficacy of currency-denominated price signaling in such industries.

Your premise is false: Open source software has nothing to do with communism, Marxism or socialism.

How many successful open source software created in communist countries do you know? Isn't it surprising that most successful open source software have been developed in capitalist countries ?

In fact, only capitalist countries give you enough wealth to spend a lot of time on hobbies, like developing open source software. If you were living in a communist country, you would probably spend most of your time searching for food.

Well you could argue that none of the countries which are considered communist were ever communist in reality.

Your separation of “capitalist” and “communist” seems to be closer to “east” and “west”. And the communist countries didn’t do well, even before they ended up being communist.

I think the whole understanding of political landscape is wrong way around: the truth is that poor countries tend to become communist because it’s much easier to sell this idea to a bunch of hungry people.

Also can you please give us examples of communist countries before the 20th century so that we could actually look back and see what is the difference between communism and capitalism on a longer time span than 80 years.

How is free and open source software communism? It directly leverages private property rights in order to impose conditions that just happen to maximize software freedom.

Perhaps this is the problem with the word "Communism"...

Communism is an aggregate pattern of (at least!) four aspects:

1) Ideology -- the set of ideas that serve as its precursor; the set of ideas that set into motion all that follows.

2) Economic Implementation -- the economic implementation of those ideas;

3) Law/Legal Implementation -- how those ideas are (or have historically been) implemented in law/legal frameworks.

4) Government Implementation -- how those ideas have been implemented in government frameworks.

#1 can be summed up as: "From each according to ability, to each according to need".

You might compare this to non-dysfunctional families in Western Democracies under Capitalism -- all of them (if they are operating correctly) -- fit under this description...

Now, that's #1 for the purpose of our discussion (you might also compare this to Christianity in it's purest, non-religious form, or any religion that espouses giving to help others in need, when they are in need, and you might also compare it to welfare/needs-based programs in Western democracies...)

But, for the purposes of our discussion, we're only really concerned with #2, and only #2 as applies to a subset of the entire economy (the software industry and other industries that rely on software), and only the subset of that where Open Source Software is freely used.

Now, that brings us to private property rights.

(By the way, you must be a lawyer because you use the word "property" rather than "asset" <g>).

But that brings us to private property rights.

(Oh, I should also point out that in Law, "rights exist opposite to a contract" <g>)

But, that brings us to private property rights.

Private property rights (and one question that you might ask is "How much liberty (as opposed to 'rights') do you really have to your property if those rights must be enforced opposite a contract, one that you didn't write, and one that must be interepreted by the Courts?"


But even that isn't the main point!

The main point is this -- from the point of view of cooperation; of helping other people out -- Open Source Software certainly fits that bill!

It fulfills the central tenet of "From each according to ability, to each according to need".

Well, maybe not absolutely in terms of property rights, there could be cases where an OSS license prevents something from happening -- for example, using someone else's source code in their own commercial products, and then hiding the source and preventing others from modifying/sharing it! (Remember that this was the original reason that Richard Stallman created the Open Source license -- it was a preemptive contract(!) TO PREVENT COMPANIES FROM ENGAGING IN PRECISELY THAT BEHAVIOR! Remember that that actually happened to Richard Stallman a long time ago -- some company used his own work in a commercial product, closed sourced it, and didn't give him any credit! It's sort of like Richard Stallman used the Law -- to fight other company's abuse of the Law!)

But, I see your point.

So, let me refine my statement somewhat...

Open Source Software agrees with #1 in spirit as much as possible -- though not always in all circumstances (due to license restrictions -- but remember that for the most part, those license restrictions (AKA "property rights") are there to prevent abuse by actors that do not share in the same spirit.)

Now, private property rights as applies to #4 -- is a completely different discussion...

I do not believe a government has any right to take away the private propety of it's people, for any reason (although, for exceptions one could examine the history of our Constitution's Taking's Clause: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” (Translation: private property can be taken for public use -- albeit with 'just compensation'...)

In fact, one of the reasons why governments are formed -- why our government was formed -- is/was to protect the private property of the individuals that comprise it.

So, private property rights as applies to how a government is implemented (#4) -- is an entirely a different discussion.

For the record, I do not believe in Communism (at least in its historical governmental implementations) -- but I do believe in sharing, helping others, etc. etc.

The word "Communism" itself is an abstraction which means many different things to many different people; I outlined four possible meanings, but of course, there are many more.

Perhaps a good idea would be to read Joel Spolsky's essay on "Leaky Abstractions"


And then, compare this (symbolically) to what the Bible has to say about "The Tower Of Babel"


And possibly think about abstraction hierarchies in language as Jenga games:


In other words, we don't just have leaky abstractions in Software -- we also have leaky abstractions in language...

No, it's not. Developers of open-source software don't recieve any resources just because they are releasing software freely to the public. They recieve resources by standard means of donations, sponsorships, licensing, branding, support etc.

If the state funded open-source development then perhaps it could be considered to be 'socialist'. But how can it be considered to be Marxist or Communist?

To me open-source fits neatly into Graeber’s idea of “basic communism”.

He notes that all people are basic communists, in the sense that if the need is great enough, and the cost of giving is small enough, all people recognise the correctness of communistic exchange.

Software is incredibly cheap to copy, share, and distribute, and once you’ve built it to solve your problem it can equally serve as a solution to the problems of others. It’s non-exclusionary.

There’s also the sense that open-source software is publicly owned, which is a key feature of socialist societies.

>"Developers of open-source software don't recieve any resources just because they are releasing software freely to the public."

Not monetarily perhaps; that is true (Side note; here's there's

one hell of a business opportunity

if there isn't already some company trying to figure out how to

monetize open source software

, but that's a side discussion, a digression...)

So you are correct -- but your correctness applies to a limited scope.

To understand this, let's revisit your statement:

>"Developers of open-source software don't recieve any resources just because they are releasing software freely to the public."

Now, we agreed that monetarily this is true...

But do me a favor, will you?

Go up to any Open Source developer; any software developer who has contributed to an Open Source project -- and ask them one simple question:

That question is:

"Have you ever used Open Source Software that you didn't write, that you didn't create?"

You see, I'll bet that 99.44% of them answer in the affirmative; that is, in a firm and resounding "Yes".

So now, you're telling me that the free use of other people's open source software -- ISN'T a resource?

(I don't know, but I think they have a saying in French "Permettez-moi de ne pas croire" ("permit me to disbelieve" <g>))

Have you ever heard of something called Linux?


That's not "receiving a resource" ?


In fact, even if you are not an Open Source Developer -- you are receiving the benefit of Hacker News -- which is running on Linux -- as are a huge amount of other people, myself included!

Or, what about all of the other websites that people use that run on Linux?

Surely that's "receiving a resource" ?

Half of the damn Internet as we know it today -- is provided by Linux and other Open Source Software that forms the stack, that serves half of all websites in existence today...

That's not a "receiving a resource" ?

What about all of the free information that the Internet provides?

That's not "receiving a resource" ?

An intellectual one?

As opposed to a monetary one?

Socialism/Marxism/Communism (and I am not defending any of them, nor their implementations, nor all of the problems that they have caused in historical contexts) all derive from the simplest of all simple ideas, which might be expressed (to a Christian) as "Charity", but that were expressed by Marx as "From each according to ability, to each according to need". Yes, historically, implemented to the scale of governments, this has caused many wars, much bloodshed, countless millions of lives lost, etc., etc.

But the central idea (although poorly implemented historically by governments) was that of sharing, helping others, etc., etc.

If you truly cannot see this central idea present, then I cannot help you.

But you post your very message on an Internet whose totality was half-created by this idea...

Oh, I should add a quick addendum here, which is that a huge amount of technological advancement of CPU's over the past 30 years (or so) was caused by the intense competition between Intel and AMD...

That competition (and the corresponding technological advancement that it brought!) -- would not and could not exist under Communism!

That intense competition -- requires Capitalism -- for it to exist!

So, Capitalism -- is not without its benefits!

Just to balance the arguments a little bit...<g>

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