Open Source Meets Capitalism

At the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco this week, technology entrepreneurs gathered to discuss “open source capitalism.” This conference theme demonstrates how the Open Source (OS) community is beginning to replace its corporate-hating mindset with a profit-loving meme, aiming to create jobs and value.

Open Source Software (OSS) products are usually free of charge and created and altered by many different individuals. The Firefox browser, which can be used instead of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, is an example of an open-source product.

But while OS is open and available for all to see, there’s money to be made through service and support packages, as well as through some OS licenses that allow complimentary propriety products to be created and sold.

Profit Motive

With well-established firms like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle, Intel, and Dell sponsoring the event, it was perhaps not surprising that the number of suited participants equaled or outnumbered those sporting jeans and tattoos.

A movement that began with computer programmer Richard Stallman’s ideology of socialized software is growing up and taking the competitive — and profit enhancing — advantages of OS seriously. Indeed, even Microsoft, long resistant to the idea of open source, dispatched a representative to outline the lessons that can be drawn from OS software.

Jason Matusow, Director of Microsoft’s Shared Source initiatives, said that key benefits of OS are increased community involvement and trust. According to Matusow, most product groups at Microsoft now have the opportunity to decide if the code they produce will be open-source or proprietary, with the core bit often being proprietary and the rest of it open-source. But even while the profit motive burns through the OS community, there are still some that cling to notions associated with OS-thought version 1.0.

Control Issues

SpikeSource CEO Kim Polese argued that one of the great things about OS is that no one owns it — a throwback to Stallman’s free software message. But as the movement has matured, it’s become clearer that even if there is no property title to a piece of code, there are still rules that control its use, and ultimately ownership is about control. In a debate sponsored by the Federalist Society in Silicon Valley last week, Washington University law professor Scott Kieff made this point well.

Keiff argued that OS property actually does exist in the form of things like fame, which are more inflexible and less transferable than regular property, making everyone worse off. His example was Linus Torvalds and his gang, which he compared to crony capitalists — those who get to make key decisions because they hang with the right social group.

Stanford law professor Larry Lessig, who debated Keiff and also spoke at the Open Source Business Conference, expressed worry about property rights going too far and said that he believes the OS community needs to fight on a political level to stay healthy. “To the extent that you succeed, other people fail,” he warned the audience. But software development isn’t a zero-sum game, and bringing Congress into the mix is a dangerous idea that most developers instinctively resist.

Political Haze

The open source community is evolving in a positive way, and the best thing governments can do is relax and let the marketplace shape the future. When governments try to guess what path is best for technology development, they usually botch the job. That’s because politics invariably gets in the way of clear thinking. Take, for example, the move by some governments to mandate the use of open-source software instead of proprietary systems in government offices.

Bureaucracies certainly have the choice of what type of software products to use. But when the decision is based on politics rather than the actual requirements of a particular government agency, efficiency and cost questions are certain to follow.

The Open Source Business Conference was a fascinating two-day event, bringing capitalists into a realm once dominated by socialist thinking. The call for government intervention in such a dynamic marketplace is misguided and should be ignored. Innovation and economic growth must be allowed to flourish.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

1 Comment

  • Open Source Community (OSC) Always Supports Capitalism
    By J.D.Bailey 2005/04/08@10:47:25USEC
    > Possibly a GPL of all IPR should be considered. IPRs are smoke and BS when they have no real value beyond the paper and ink. I think, we could develop a GMT-DTG-eSignature IPR system that allows all people, governments, organizations, and corporations to register their IPR and put their registered IPR in a globally internet accessible FOSS database. Then a simple rule would be required that all IPR ideas and contents are GPL for personal and non-profit use; However, when an IPR is intended for use to generate profit by anyone, then a consensus-contract must be agreed upon, which courts would find legally (when required) equitable for all involved participants. Use of a GPL-IPR could not be restricted by the owner (as in automatic use consensus), and the owner would always be legally entitled to equitable compensation for the contribution IPR value.
    > Personal use, public University use, Research use, public Learning institutions use, collaborative use, … would always be free and legal, but use to make profit, win friends, influence people, generate income to support payrole/foundations/organizations/institutions … without compensating or free-use-permission of the IPR holder would be criminal. Okay, maybe a special rule for the entertainment industry for a one to seven year (with 20 years maximum renewal option) limited-use-restriction.
    > I believe, we must support IPR innovation for a stable economy and government (without making kiddy-criminals) to have what we are looking for in our future. This is open-content free-IPR.
    > Innovation drives capitalism as an economic system that supports democracy. Greed over the past few decades has driven economics and government for the past few decades. One example is the persistence of old industrial age Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) concepts for real-physical manufacture of patented and copyrighted products. Governments, corporations, and global law/policy organizations continue the industrial age innovation protection and reward for capitalist economy.
    > Patent and copyright products are now more in a virtual-realm of reality, until an expenditure of raw materials and capital investment occur. We can continue as in the past, but that locks-up the synergy required for present innovation in capitalist economics. The old IPR industrial-age-way can continue, but the cost will eventually be the destruction of both capitalism and democracy with corporate-political-economics equivalent to communism as more centralization of authority and capabilities occur by dejure.
    > The OSC is dynamic and human-centric. I started using FOSS products in 1995. By 1996, I knew about contributions by many, but it all started in the USA with R.H.Stallman at MIT in the late 1970s and (I think) 1985 the AM azing GNU General Public License (GPL) ‘software as public property’, and then came GNU/Linux operating system developed with the contributions of Linus Torvalds in the early (I think) 1990s. Phillip Zimmerman gave US the PGP for PKI while at MIT in the late (I think) 1980s. For me, I consider both Stallman and Zimmerman "Great Americans" completly worthy of the "Presidential Medal of Freedom". Whoops, I digress, from the OSC is dynamic and human-centric.
    > Eben Moglen former Supreme Court clerk:"Look, the greatest man I ever worked for was Thurgood Marshall. I knew what made him a great man. I knew why he had been able to change the world in his possible way. I would be going out on a limb a little bit if I were to make a comparison, because they could not be more different: Thurgood Marshall was a man in society, representing an outcast society to the society that enclosed it, but still a man in society. His skill was social skills. But he was all of a piece, too. Different as they were in every other respect, the person I now most compare him to in that sense … is Stallman." Dang, again I digressed ….

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