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Scott Carpenter [opinions]

Free software is a weak mode of production

fsmsh.com/1802 [free-software] [ipcentral]

The success of GNU/Linux and other free software projects is annoying. Free and open source development doesn't fit neatly in the box of standard business practices and is therefore a problem. We really need to break free of those hippies at the Free Software Foundation and let the grown-ups manage things from here on out. Not to mention that the peer-based production model doesn't really work that great anyway.

Or at least, that's what I inferred from this post at IPcentral. There are some peculiar ideas there that prompted me to write in response.

There's this idea that since big money is at stake now, we can't have these weirdos involved who look at software freedom as a moral issue.

"There has never been a good fit between the FSFers, who believe that software really should be free, and the corporate types, who want to commodify operating systems as a way of providing a platform on which to hang money-making apps and services."

It's as if by some embarrassing accident, we got all this great free software to use in our businesses, but now it's time to lock it down? Some people only understand control. I don't even see the conflict. You can still "hang money-making apps and services" on the free software.

Why stop now? If it's good to turn operating systems in to a commodity, why not do the same for just about every other kind of software out there? Businesses that move goods around all share a common road, rail, and air infrastructure. One of the ways they compete is through logistics: how well they move the goods. Similarly, it would be useful to share software infrastructure that works through standards, and then compete based on how well you use the software to run your business.

There's also a "so long, and thanks for all the fish" kind of idea. Something of value has been created, but we really can't go on in such an unseemly way. Again, there's this befuddlement that free software development has worked so well, and the inability to extrapolate continued benefits. A comment attached to the post asks, "The goose has laid enough golden eggs, time to kill it and cook it for dinner?" Ok, full disclosure: It's my pseudonymous comment, but I'm still curious. Is it just too bizarre and scary to accept that free software has worked, and to look forward to even more gains from this approach?

Which brings us to another idea in the post, and quite to the contrary of the previous: that free and open source development is not such a great mode of production at all (despite being good enough to spur adoption and create "huge financial stakes" for corporations):

"...the quicker its weaknesses as a mode of production are rendered obvious, the sooner the debate can shift to real issues of how to define and protect IP rights in a time of great technological change. Where should they shrink, and where should they expand?"

This idea is not really developed in the brief post, but it is hauled out to address the true concern and fear of some free software/culture opponents, that this model might "infect" the business models of the music and movie industries. By dismissing free software development as a workable model, they can in turn dismiss the idea that culture should also be free (as in free speech!). But let's not get into the culture discussion, since here at FSM we're primarily concerned about free software.

Back to the quote, I like that the debate is dependent on exposing the weakness of free and open source software development. If it isn't shown to be weak, does that mean we don't have to suffer stronger IP protection?

Free software does have at least one big weakness. Despite the support of large companies, including IBM, a lot of free software doesn't have the protection of money and lawyers. Some people, including those at IPcentral, I think, would love to see free software projects slowed or killed off due to their lack of the bureaucracy and resources available to traditional companies. And many people would love to use the grossly dysfunctional patent system as a way of eliminating the threat and competition from free software.

But, other than being vulnerable to entrenched interests with lawyers, how is it that free and open source software development is weak as a mode of production? Free software has been and will continue to be a big driver of this "time of great technological change." The Internet is built on free software. I'm not worried about the strength of the mode.

The genie is out of the bottle. Let's keep making wishes.

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Please visit the Moving to Freedom web site at http://www.movingtofreedom.org for additional woolly thinking about free software and free etcetera. (It's new and improved, with page caching! Your visit will help with testing the cache and with my desperate need for attention.)

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Reusable with this attribution, and please note if modifications are made: Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2006. Originally published in Free Software Magazine. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-2.5).

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