Software freedoms and Parecon values

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The four freedoms defined by GNU (to run, study, distribute, modify the software), though being valuable, only pertain to the software itself, its source code, and what one can do with it. But they have no say in the software economy, how and by whom the software may be collectively produced and financed. In theory, any type of economy could apply, and incidentally, free software is supported by different political tendencies, from communists to neoliberals.

I thought it might be interesting to focus on the social and economic implications of free software. After all, isn't ZNet supposed to be committed to social change, more than software change? In particular, I'd like to evaluate free software (and free content in general) from the perspective of Parecon values, namely equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management.


[edit] Equity

From the consumption point of view, free software is perfectly equitable, since it's a public good (being non-rival and non-excludable). But regarding remuneration, this is a different matter. Sales of "free" software, which amount to hundreds of millions of dollars each year, very rarely benefit to its original authors, who are unpaid for most of them. However, anyone is able to start a business selling the free software, so the profits on its selling can't be too high, which is another incitement not to pay authors in a market environment. This also means that investment in free software is discouraged, from capitalists (which is not bad in a Parecon perspective), from customers (who are reluctant to fatten intermediaries), and from authors.

It might be argued that these authors give away their work voluntarily, which is true and good, but if solely an affluent elite with plenty of free time can fully devote to free software development (Ubuntu, one of the most popular GNU/Linux distributions, is managed by the multimillionaire Mark Shuttleworth), where's the equity?

Fortunately many computer science students can spend time on creating and improving free software while studying.

[edit] Solidarity

Free software is based on the solidarity of programmers who give away their code to the community. It can also generate solidarity from users, for example through donations. Users can also cooperate by writing documentation, sending in feedback, bug reports, feature requests.

However, despite its freedom, or more precisely because of its freedom, free software doesn't escape from the trends of free-market economy. For most users, free software is no different than freeware, and is just like free beer. For software vendors, open-source is mostly a way to get unpaid workforce, and is seen as a means to increase competition. It can be noted incidentally that Richard Stallman (creator of the free software concept) often said he has no problem with capitalism, and that Eric Raymond (founder of the open source initiative) is a well-known "libertarian" (in the US sense, i.e. libertarian capitalist).

Moreover, open-source development often suffers from ego problems, leading to conflicts for the control of projects, and to proliferation of thousands of similar programs (which is considered an advantage by many).

Open content in general can be distributed for profit without remunerating authors and without added value. For example there are many Wikipedia mirrors which only add advertising links.

[edit] Diversity

With hundreds of different GNU/Linux distributions, and thousands of free software programs and libraries, one can hardly claim that free software doesn't promote diversity. However, because of its economic nature, free software is mostly a matter of computer enthusiasts, thus is developed by techies and for techies, who rarely perceive the basic needs of "simple" users. (Those who have tried for example to remove a CD-ROM mounted on GNU/Linux will know what I mean.) So despite the variety of programs, most of them are oriented towards programmers, or at least advanced users.

However, as time goes, some free software will grow beyond the realm of hobbyists. Also, many free softwares were at first developed as proprietary software before going open-source. For example Firefox (ex-Netscape) which is considered one of the best web browsers, (ex-StarOffice), Blender, etc.

[edit] Self-management

Free software grants many freedoms, but says nothing on the collective exercise of these freedoms. While many projects are democratically managed, even on a large scale (e.g. Debian), many others look more like a benevolent dictatorship (e.g. Linux kernel). In any case, development decisions are taken by developers.

However, because of its nature, anyone is free to start a fork of a free software project, with a different way of management. And indeed, forking is a common practice, often caused by management conflicts. But this is rather a fall-back than a self-management solution.

Regarding financial decisions, they may sometimes be publicly accessible in the case of non-profit organizations, but most of the time, the economic power belongs to go-betweens, who are free to demand a price to clients, and free not to pay authors. Even though open-source means technical transparency, it still doesn't mean financial transparency.

[edit] Discussion

You can discuss these ideas on the discussion page.

[edit] Links

The free software definition from GNU refers to four kinds of freedom for software users: to use, to study, to distribute, and to modify the software; this implies access to the source code.

The free content definition from IANG extends the GNU definition by adding three kinds of freedom: for everyone, to access the bookkeeping; for customers, to participate in economic decisions; and for authors, to participate in development decisions.

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