Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Open Source and the New Economy

What is Open Source and Free Software?

Open Source and Free Software is released under licenses which allow others to redistribute modified and unmodified copies of the software as well as derivative works. Some licenses require that these copies and works be distributed under the same or similar licenses, while others will allow the licenses to be changed.

The most successful open source software is developed and maintained by large communities or self-regulating networks of developers. This process decentralizes research, development, and engineering. Thus it creates an environment of collaborative development where many corporations and individuals participate.

Why does this challenge our notions of capitalism?

In traditional capitalism, natural persons and corporations get ahead by controlling as much capital as possible. Therefore one tries to maximize intellectual property, human and other resources, and working capital in order to obtain more leverage in a given market. In capitalism, the large corporations are the powerhouses of production, and nobody else can compete with them on their scale.

Decetralizing software development doesn't get rid of corporations, rich people, or other complaints that a few people have regarding capitalism, but it fundamentally changes the rules of the game. Indeed, the community gains much more market leverage than any one corporation due to the fact that even if it has no formal organization (such as a non-profit corporation), it still posesses vast intellectual property and human resource reserves which can marginalize competitors. This phenominon can exist regardless of whether the open source software can be resold under standard commercial licenses, as the Apache Web Server has shown. Therefore this is not a phenominon of one license, but rather a phenominon of the processes.

If open source methodologies spread to other fields of engineering, this may radically reshape our technology firms. For example communities of engineers could be designing computer chips, kitchen appliances, perhaps even jumbo jets. Such development practices would undermine much of the dominance that large corporations have in the markets today. For example, although a computer chip or a jumbo jet would probably require a large corporation to manufacture it, the actual design would be less dominated by the corporations and more by customers and users.

If Open Source is post-Capitalist then is it Communist?

In Soviet communism, the State owned and ran everything. Therefore I have often referred to it as "Feudalism backed by Marxist Propaganda." It was never a danger to societies where democracy and capitalism had become established. Indeed in the end, the Soviet Union fell and moved on to capitalism, and such market reforms are also underway in China (which seems to be in a transition into a capitalist economy).

The move from communism or feudalism to capitalism is the move from state control to corporate control. Rather than reversing this trend, open source and free software continue to the move towards more abstract and agile organizational methods. The communities which maintain the most successful open source software projects are continuously evolving in an organic way. The core developers may remain constant and continue to have final say regarding what goes into the project, but the community which uses and provides feedback and contributions to the project is dynamic and so the ability of community-driven open source projects to innovate massively outpaces even that of the largest software vendors, such as Microsoft.

This is an economic shift towards something new.


Post a Comment

<< Home