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Wednesday, November 23, 2005 

The Open Source Movement; a Socialist phenomenon?

No... "Open Source is not about a lack of property rights, it’s
about distributed
property rights, distributed responsibility
and networked rather than
hierarchical processes."

One of the fascinating battles taking place on the Web, (and there are a few big ones underway) is the growing war of words between the old-guard (more Web 1.0) capitalists, typified by Microsoft and SAP, and the open-source (more Web 2.0) development community. However, the acrimony seems to be largely flying in one direction.

In a sign that the old guard may be starting to panic about highly collaborative open-source business models, Shai Agassi, president of the product and technology group at SAP, claimed that not only was Linux “not innovative” but that it represented “I.P. Socialism”. He is not the first to dredge up cold-war rhetoric to try to discredit Linux-type solutions and dissuade clients from switching. In an interview in January this year, in response to a fairly loaded question about “people clamoring to reform and restrict intellectual-property rights”, Bill Gates said:

“There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don't think that those incentives should exist.”

Hangon, is Bill seriously lumping the IP issues of the Open Source debate in with music and movie piracy? It wasn’t said overtly, but he is inferring this kind of linkage. The “incentives” that Bill is talking about are all regulatory processes that predate the Web, and this I’m afraid makes him sound more and more like yesterday’s man.

Both of these guys are trying to draw a parallel between open-source and left wing politics that is just not there. Communism and Socialism are about central planning and imposing a system without property rights on a populace. Open Source is not about a lack of property rights, it’s about distributed property rights, distributed responsibility and networked rather than hierarchical processes. Open Source, (which really means Open-Control) is a solution born of the Internet. It is TOTALLY about Enterprise, but just not about protecting the (circa 1980’s and 90s) Enterprises.

Not all CEO’s spin the Commie line in relation to Open Source, Jonathan Schwartz, President and COO of Sun Microsystems had this to say on the topic:

“I believe the creation, protection and evolution of intellectual property can accelerate everyone's ability to participate in an open network...And that, surely, should be everyone's common goal with free and open source software. It's not about bringing the competition down, it's about driving global participation up.”



I think the more interesting battle is the one we saw start nearly 10 years ago, between Richard Stallman who created "free software" as an explicitly political anti-propertarian action, and Eric Raymond and Tim O'Reilly who set out to rebrand the phenomenon as "open source".

Their disagreement is not whether this is a good thing. As Stallman says, the two sides can happily work together on practical and tactical issues. The argument is how to understand the phenomenon. The "left" definitely see it as about creating and promoting "commons" as opposed to private property. The Raymondite right tries to spin it as a new "kind" of property which simply works by different rules.

Stallman thinks copyright is ethically wrong. O'Reilly thinks it's a question of pragmatic choice.

It's interesting to see how this is evolving. On the surface it looks like the right won : more people use and understand "open source" than "free software". The overtures from O'Reilly and Raymond persuaded many capitalist enterprises that they could participate in and apply openness in a commercial context. As, indeed, they can.

But more recently O'Reilly is more concerned with the whole Web 2.0 thing, and Raymond has devolved from internet visionary into a petulant warblogger; while the anti-propertarian banner has been picked up by Lawrence Lessig who's leading an extremely explicit "commons" oriented movement. (With perhaps Yochai Benkler as new poster-child).

The point about Shai Agassi and Bill Gates is that *their* business model of selling licenses to use their IP is directly threatened by this phenomenon *however* it's theorized. Of course they'll try to spin it as negatively as possible. Even though a new generation of capitalist enterprise will simply adapt.

But I think you're wrong about the challenge to property posed by this new phenomenon. Property isn't God-given; it evolves. And throughout capitalist history there has been a consistent trend to "enclose" and define more and more things as property (ie. things that can be bought, sold and allocated according to the market, rather than allocated as a commons or on first-come-first-served principles.)

That's part of the nature of the capitalist system. As something becomes prominent, people start to try to find ways of making money from it, and that typically requires that the government formalizes and enforces the rules of ownership and transfer so that people can start buying and selling it.

Apart from the abolition of slavery, the only popular movement *against* this direction of enclosure is the current one formented by the free-software movement, and analogous commons-based movements.

What they've highlighted, and made people very obviously *notice*, is that property rights are created by government, often in response to special interest groups in society. Suddenly factions of the left and the libertarian-right have a common analysis and tactical goals : to prevent the really powerful interest groups from using government to enclose more of the commons for themselves.

In doing so, they raise the really subversive question : how do we evaluate what sorts of things "ought" to be property and what "ought not"? People shift from thinking of property as "natural" and start thinking of it as "pragmatic".

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