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The Problem With Free Software…

…Is Capitalism

There’s been another rash of discussion about the challenges of making FLOSS software, this time sparked off by the problem of funding Babel. The specifics are different, but the general thrust of the story and the reactions to it aren’t new: Someone devotes a large amount of their time and effort to making something that many people both depend on and make piles of money from, but don’t recompense that original developer. The reactions tend to range from “well, that’s what you get for releasing it under a permissive license” to “just get a job/funding from FAANG to support it”.

There also tends to be a bunch of armchair-lawyering about exactly what license should be used, which devolves into arguments about copyleft, how a license that prevents Amazon from re-selling your product isn’t actually open-source anymore (because it restricts the rights of a user!), and a bunch of fantasizing about what sort of license would fit the bill. All of this misses the point though. No matter what kind of license you pick, you’re still operating within a capitalist system, that will inevitably co-opt and take over whatever it is you’re trying to do (as the best response to the Babel situation I read said).

Of course, as soon as you bring up the idea that the capitalist system itself is a problem, inevitably people will start objecting, saying that capitalism is what has enabled the creation of all these things in the first place. While many of the creations that they would point to in fact benefited a great deal from government subsidies and/or regulatory capture, it is true that we’ve seen an unprecedented boom under capitalism. However, that doesn’t mean that capitalism is the system we need to stay with. Marx’s Capital starts with what is really a paean to the productive powers of capitalism – he was well aware that it was a vastly more efficient and powerful system than its feudal and mercantilist predecessors. His point wasn’t that we need to throw away all that capitalism has provided, but that we need to recognize the failures of that mode of production and supersede it, moving on to the next mode.

It seems clear that open source isn’t sustainable as things are now. Many of the large projects survive on the contingent largess of corporations, but how long will that last? Those that aren’t directly funded exist mainly because developer salaries are so inflated that the people maintaining them can afford to spend their time on something that’s a pure cost to them. Neither of those things are viable in the long term though. Inevitably corporations will decide that their money is better spent else or they’ll simply bring that project in-house and close it off. Individuals working on something in their spare time eventually burn out or lose interest; in any case, it greatly limits the scope of a project if it’s just a hobby and doesn’t have the resources of even a single full-time developer.

The only way free/libre/“open-source”1 software can be a sustainable endeavour is to change what “sustainable” means. In an ideal world, housing and food would be decommodified and people could work on software projects for the love of it and place it in the commons for others to enjoy the use of. Until we get there though, I’m not sure which route is best. One somewhat appealing option is to try to deny the ability of corporations to benefit from the work of the commons. Unfortunately, attempts at doing this end up being viciously attacked by existing FLOSS communities, crying that by limiting who can use their software, they’re no longer “free”, technically proprietary, and generally heretical. They know well that they exist at the pleasure of those large companies and will enthusiastically police their own ranks to prevent true anti-corporate sentiment from becoming the mainstream.

Expecting the freeloading corporations that benefit from open-source software to contribute fairly is, I think, unrealistic. The only reason they support the development now is because they know it’s ultimately less expensive for them; if they actually had to pay the real value of the development, they’d just take it in-house and prevent others from benefiting from it. Little tricks of intellectual property law like “copyleft” are ultimately impotent against the weight of the entire edifice of the system in which they exist. Even if we did suddenly change everything to be licensed as AGPL overnight, does anyone really think that the FSF would be able to stand up in a copyright court against Apple and Google?

If we want things to be different, it’s not enough to play semantic games with licensing terms. We need a sea-change in not just software development but in our society as a whole. As long as everything in our world is distorted by the massive gravitational pull of the few, massively rich behemoths, all we do will end up being subservient to their interests. Free software is something I love working on and is a perfect example of how people can create wonderful, complex things not motivated by self-interest, but by the joy of creation and the desire to help others. We need to expand that spirit outwards and decide that we want to live in a world where that’s the normal way of things, not a strange, fragile aberration.

Footnotes:

1

I’ve come to really distrust the term “open-source”, as its original intention was – and remains – to make work exploitable by large companies, rather than to protect users or developers