Bruce Perens: Is Open Source Capitalist or Communist?

The various camps of open source developers, and the companies involved, may be disdainful or worse toward each other, but in fact all partners are needed for a healthy ecosystem.
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About the Author: Bruce Perens is the creator of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of Open Source and the criterion for Open Source software licensing. Perens represented Open Source at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, at the request of the United Nations Development Program.

Is Open Source capitalist or communist?


About once a week a certain blogger stridently claims Open Source is a Capitalist Movement! or Today, Open Source is Commercial! and Open Source is About Capitalism, Not Freebies!

In fact, the truth is more complicated. We'll get into the economics of software and business to understand it.

First, is business capitalistic? Well, sure, you'd say. But the truth is that business rarely operates under a pure capitalist model. And especially not now. Under such a model, a bankrupt or uncompetitive business would be allowed, indeed encouraged, to die in a sort of Social Darwinism.

Yet one need only look at economic recovery schemes worldwide to see that companies thought of as the epitome of capitalism just last year are now only too eager to nurse at our collective tax-funded teat, with the approval of their peers and millions of smaller businesses worldwide.

But business isn't only Communist when it's down. Business requires a commons to operate. Public roads, and infrastructure in general are the usual examples, but also the broader collection of nearly everything that government does: providing a common framework of law in which business can compete, keeping civil order, providing education for the work force, funding research and development.

Add this to the list of commons that business depends upon: Open Source. Open Source is the interstate highway system of software. It operates the Internet and telecommunications infrastructure through which business communication is carried out, and much of the infrastructure of each individual business.

Is Open Source Communist then? Not usually. Its development is funded through three separate paradigms, and only one of them can be said to not have a business goal in mind. They are:

1) Infrastructure

This refers to collaboration by businesses interested in development of infrastructure software, for their own operations or in a supporting role to their product.

This activity is not intended to produce profit directly. Instead, it allows a company to keep more of the profit that it had been using to fund cost-center software development. It provides software to operate the profit-centers more efficiently and effectively. This is the biggest source of Open Source development today, and is represented by projects like Linux, Apache, and Eclipse.

But note that some of the best developers on these projects don't have any business motivation.

2) Non-Profit

This is sharing without any profit motive as a primary purpose of the activity. This applies to some of the best developers on the otherwise-profit-motivated projects, and to many projects operated by individuals, schools, and organizations. It also applies to most Open Source projects before they can attract business participants.

Linux would never have kept going if it had to depend on business at the start; it took years before companies had any serious interest in running it. Those early developers never expected a profit from business participation in the project, though many of them have now found jobs in what was previously their hobby.

The projects operated by the Free Software Foundation are probably the best example of this sort of development.

3) Direct Profit

This refers to software produced by companies that expect to make a profit from something directly associated with the software: through commercial licenses of software that is also dual-licensed as Open Source, through service contracts, training, an enhanced commercial version of the software or commercial add-ons for the software, etc. Some examples of this are MySQL (Sun), Berkeley DB (Oracle), and Spring (SpringSource).

Notice that only the last of these paradigms has a direct profit goal in mind. Two have business in mind. One doesn't have financial goals as its raison d'été. And there's a lot of mixing between the three paradigms. So, the question is Open Source is capitalist or Communist isn't a very meaningful one. It's both – and neither.

Red Hat, Ubuntu, Novell

Perhaps at this point you've looked up and said Where's Red Hat? Red Hat, Canonical (Ubuntu), and Novell are like stockbrokers rather than the companies behind the stock.

The Linux distribution companies do make and sell their own software, but they are primarily in the business of packaging, configuring, and supporting software that is made by Open Source projects outside of their company. The result is distributed as a boxed product or bundled with computers for sale.

The Linux distribution companies may or may not participate significantly in the Open Source projects whose work they distribute. All three of the above development paradigms - infrastructure, non-profit, or direct commercial, apply to the software packaged by the Red Hat, Canonical, and Novell.

The Mozilla Foundation is another interesting exception. Even though they're not operated for profit, they have gotten much of their funding from Google, who has an obvious interest in having good web browsers for their service business and doesn't want Microsoft or Apple to dominate the web. So, I'd put them in the "infrastructure" rather than "non-profit" category.

There are other mixes between the "non-profit" and "infrastructure" paradigms: Open Source projects that have very strong participation from a single company, but are allowed broad latitude to manage themselves lest they stop looking like an Open Source project and lose collaborators.

Next Page: Having it Both Ways

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Tags: open source, Linux, developers, Red Hat, Mozilla

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