by Henry Farrell on September 14, 2004

“Dan Hunter”: at the Wharton School has written a quite interesting paper arguing that the open source movement’s battle with various bits of the software and entertainment industry is a 21st century version of the Marxian revolution. There’s a lot to argue with in the piece – Hunter’s account of Marxist theory is sometimes a little more metaphoric than precise, and he perhaps overestimates the extent to which a nineteenth century thinker’s insights provide an accurate description of what is happening in open source today. But it’s nonetheless smart, funny in places (talking about the key role of “Marxist-Lessigist theory”), and valuable as an opening move in what I think is a quite important debate. Ever since listening to Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Cory Doctorow hash out the politics of the information age over breakfast this spring (I, a mere political scientist, didn’t feel qualified to intervene), I’ve been convinced that there is something really _really_ important for leftists in the open source movement, and the free culture crowd more generally. The arguments which they are developing about how collective resources provide a basis for individual creativity, and, in an important sense, individual freedom could serve as the seed of a very interesting political program. The left really needs to start paying attention to this stuff, and thinking its implications through.

Via “BoingBoing”:



Gus diZerega 09.14.04 at 10:17 pm

Related to this post, but obliquely, this reminds me of an article I read some years ago that many European countries had a higher percentage of small businessmen than did the US because public health insurance protected their families in case their ventures went south.


Giles 09.14.04 at 10:50 pm

I think you’ll find that the thesis here is more that they come not to praise Marx but to bury him.

Most of the open source/free copyright economists are from the right. Why? Well they’re just theorizing the no intellectual property rights mantras that have existed for centuries – e.g. “no copyright in the city of London”. The point of these thesis is that free markets generate socially optimal outcomes.

So what the open source revolution’s social counterpart is really a revelation of the source of neo conservatism – naïve marxists converted to free market ideals by the operation of computers. And I think you’ll find a similar body of neo cons who were Marxist at uni working in investment banking in the city.


Tim F 09.14.04 at 11:09 pm

Bits of the left are certainly paying attention to this stuff. It’s a big part of Hardt and Negri’s new book, for example, and has been the subject of debates at (or around) the European Social Forums (the hub project) and at the counter-conference organised at the World Summit for an Information Society. The WSIS – We Seize protests produced something of a manifesto, which is probably as good a place as any to start finding out how the European left are responding to these issues (unfortunately, and slightly ironically, I can only find the drafts of the articles online). Also worth a look is the journal Makeworlds.


Henry 09.14.04 at 11:10 pm

Giles, I think you’re completely wrong here. Why _should_ lefties be in favour of strong limits on intellectual property – I don’t see any argument on this in your post, other than a claim that the idea has somehow been associated with folks in the London city. Further, the open source movement seems to me to have much less to do with the idea of “no intellectual property” than of “shared intellectual property.” It’s precisely because Randite loons like Eric Raymond have become the self-appointed authorities on open source that this has been obscured – I wouldn’t trust Raymond’s opinions on open source any more than I’d trust his frequently reprehensible opinions on gay people, Muslims or world politics. If you look at any serious account of open source – say Steve Weber’s recent book on the topic – it becomes clear that open source projects only work because of pretty rich forms of social organization – exactly the kind of thing that lefties like. It may well be that you have a more developed argument about this – but I’m not seeing it in your comment, to be honest.

Tim F – thanks for those links – they look very interesting.


Giles 09.15.04 at 12:33 am

“Why should lefties be in favor of strong limits on intellectual property”

I don’t think I said that –I meant that from what I read more intellectuals that are advocating the relaxation of intellectual property are of a free market persuasion – and that (except on this board) does’nt then imply that lefties must therefore be against it.

Similarly although my example was communal, papers such a “the case against intellectual property” make the argument from a macro perspective that doesn’t rely on groups or group interests.

I personally agree that these seem a wee bit far fetched and agree that the social/group aspects are more likely to be key; where the difference arises is probably that those on the left look towards how individuals co operate develop the “common” whereas those on the right look more towards how individuals compete (to be the one to improve the code).

Positively its probably a bit of both – but when it comes to policy I suspect that different conclusions are likely to crop up!


Henry 09.15.04 at 12:58 am

Fair enough then – but what interests me is how this open source stuff provides an interesting example of how collective resources can really allow individuals to do creative and unexpected things. This is something that the left has often not been good at or interested in – and open source offers, I think, some powerful lessons.


glory 09.15.04 at 4:59 am

yochai benkler has written about this here:

In this paper I explain that while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing is the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode “commons-based peer-production,” to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

cf. bowles and gintis’ social capital and community governance and community currencies (e.g. doctorow’s ‘whuffie’)


glory 09.15.04 at 5:41 am

oh and fwiw, i think i first heard of OSS described as an alternative mode of production in the lefty zine ‘bad subjects’ and then i guess later thru slashdot in libertarian ESR’s the cathedral and the bazaar (contrast commie RMS :) and neal stephenson’s in the beginning was the command line.

legally (before lessig!) eben moglen’s anarchism triumphant was seminal, IMO, as was delong and froomkin’s speculative microeconomics in establishing information as a public good and what kind of economy attendant upon such — an e-conomy as it were — might result.


bad Jim 09.15.04 at 8:54 am

Not letting Microsoft (or AT&T – anyone remember them?) run everything, and collect a toll from every user? Who could object to that?

The open source model proposes to treat our common computing environment the same way we do our common intellectual environment, open to universal examination and improvement. The alternative, to which most of us submit, is the consumer model: when we’re in the market, we buy what’s available, put up with its faults and wait for their fixes.

So far, Linux remains an assortment of solutions offered by a variety of entrepreneurs, an anarchistic stew guaranteeing indigestion for anyone demanding a single standard solution. But what’s the alternative? Waiting to mount the next rude beast slouching our way from Redmond?


Luc 09.15.04 at 9:17 am

Re. “commie RMS”, his original free software usenet post is still on google.

So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles,
I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.

That is from 27 Sep 1983. He was raving mad then, he still is, but he did achieve his goal.

But I have to agree in part with Giles that it wasn’t as much the marxist/socialist ideology that was influencing the hackers at that time (and the later free/open software movements), but more the anarchist/libertarian ideology. Corporations, copyright and licensing weren’t evil because of capital or other marxist issues, but because they restricted freedom. Specifically their freedom to hack.


Nadeem Riaz 09.15.04 at 10:00 am

This is only tangnentially related to the thesis of the article, but I think the interesting part of the open source movement for political movements to take note of is its structure. Open source projects are loosely knit and run by people who have often never met each other. A project changes leaders and coordinates continously. People can contribute a little or a lot, very easily. People contribute using their own personal expertise.

Although MoveOn and MeetUp are starting to offer the framework for loosely-knit political coordination, its a far cry from what the open source movement has done.

An operating system is a pretty complex beast, with many different components, such as the file system, memory manager, network layer, process manager, device drivers, etc. Each of these components is coordinated by an expert in that topic. Other experts in those topics, can contribute as little or as much as they want to Linux. The point is though, the economic value of what people is contributing is extremely high because its highly specialized. People aren’t just donating money, to hire programmers to create a free operating system, or they aren’t talking to their neighborsr about free operating systems. They are basically contributing their optimal economic value to the project.

I have yet to see a political movement centered around getting the maximal economic output of their participants/supporters into the project. I.e. effectively leveraging the fact these groups will consist of doctors, lawyers, professors, programmers, and a host of other professionals — and utilizing the maximum output of each of these different types of people in a loosely-knit distributed manner (just like Linux utlizes the output of Device driver specialists and memory experts). Now maybe political projects can’t be divided as nicely as something like an operating system — but its not because they are more complex and its certainly not becacuse their aren’t enough people (c.f. all the people that waste time on blogs). I think the idea is at least worth a shot.


Luc 09.15.04 at 1:16 pm

One other thing about Richard Stallman. He is (or I consider him) the most influential person on the IP/licensing part of the free software movement. Mostly because he was first, but also because he kept working on it.
And just as Eric Raymond he is a bit wierd.

But his philosophy is clear. From his famous essay Why Software Should Not Have Owners

Authors often claim a special connection with programs they have written, and go on to assert that, as a result, their desires and interests concerning the program simply outweigh those of anyone else—or even those of the whole rest of the world.

To those who propose this as an ethical axiom—the author is more important than you—I can only say that I, a notable software author myself, call it bunk.

The idea of natural rights of authors was proposed and decisively rejected when the US Constitution was drawn up.

The most widely used license in the fs/oss community is the GPL and it is based on this “philosphy”.

And maybe that is why I dont know if Henry’s statement

Further, the open source movement seems to me to have much less to do with the idea of “no intellectual property” than of “shared intellectual property.”

is correct.

For me it remains a contradiction. The madness of the arguments for the GPL vs. the usefullness and success of that license.

And RMS really thinks you should be aware of the philosophy when you use Linux or any other GPLed program. As he writes here:

We must talk about freedom

Estimates today are that there are ten million users of GNU/Linux systems such as Debian GNU/Linux and Red Hat Linux. Free software has developed such practical advantages that users are flocking to it for purely practical reasons.

The good consequences of this are evident: more interest in developing free software, more customers for free software businesses, and more ability to encourage companies to develop commercial free software instead of proprietary software products.

But interest in the software is growing faster than awareness of the philosophy it is based on, and this leads to trouble. Our ability to meet the challenges and threats described above depends on the will to stand firm for freedom. To make sure our community has this will, we need to spread the idea to the new users as they come into the community.

But we are failing to do so: the efforts to attract new users into our community are far outstripping the efforts to teach them the civics of our community. We need to do both, and we need to keep the two efforts in balance.


Luc 09.15.04 at 1:19 pm

Last link should lead here


Con Tendem 09.15.04 at 2:40 pm

“Fair enough then – but what interests me is how this open source stuff provides an interesting example of how collective resources can really allow individuals to do creative and unexpected things. ”

So far most of open source stuff that has not been donated by larger organizations (e.g. IBM, Sun) is rarely creative and unexpected. By far most of the open source software tries to provide a zero-cost license software that does what other, non-zero cost lisense software does.

I have to agree with Jonathan Shwartz of Sun Microsystems when he says that open source is not nearly as important as open standards. It is indeed the open standards that provide the opportunity to do creative and unexpected things, not the open source software per se. For vast majority of users there is no difference between a piece of software that is open-source – like gcc, or free, like Sun JDK. What is important for creativity, IMO, is how powerful, open and standards-compliant the software is, not what license it is under.


Duane 09.15.04 at 5:18 pm

I have to disagree with you pretty strongly, con tendem. Yes, most open source software is implementing things that have been done before. But then most proprietary development is too. In fact I would strongly argue that the ratio of original, creative code to unoriginal, derivative code is much much higher in the FOSS world than in the proprietary world*. I say this as a professional software developer who has spent an unhealthy percentage of his life reading and writing (mostly) proprietary and (a little) open-source code.

You say the vast majority of users don’t care about the license, only the cost. I’ve no doubt that you’re right, if by users you mean non-IT professionals. But for a lot of FOSS (especially successful FOSS) the end-users are developers and sysadmins, who mostly do care, often passionately. The JDK license is actually an excellent case-in-point. Java has relatively little market share amongst FOSS developers, and most Linux distros have between little and no Java support out-of-the-box. This is unlikely to change until there is a good quality open-source Java implementation available (hopefully soon, between GNU classpath and the various FOSS JVM projects).

FOSS promotes creative programming, because it means that you can use existing bits & pieces of code, then focus on adding your own unique contribution, to quickly develop very powerful tools. There is no way that something like They Work for You would ever have happened without FOSS, for example.

As for Jonathan Shwartz, he and Sun are hardly disinterested players in this game. Sun occupies a very useful niche between cheap low-end servers (usually Linux or Windows) and very expensive high-end mainframes (usually IBM). They are getting squeezed from both sides, their strategic advantages are being commoditized, and they are looking increasingly irrelevent. So they decide to focus on software and services for development. But these days it is getting much harder to make money from selling software to developers, and everyone wants systems architects who know Linux, not Solaris…

* With the obvious exception of all the pre-alpha zombie projects on SourceForge that never made it outside of their creator’s bedrooms.


glory 09.15.04 at 5:46 pm

re: political movements patterned on F/OSS

while i think the ESR/RMS split illustrates an ideological divide, nadeem riaz and con tendem rightfully point out that ‘the movement’ isn’t driven by ideology, but by technical specification that ‘just works’ (or at least that’s the ideal!) hence the success of linux and torvalds’ management practice thereof.

adopting this paradigm into an “emergent democracy” or “second superpower” i think is perilous tho. politics and nations begin and end at the point of a gun, as it were. if you believe realpolitick, that the fundamental unit of state is the monopoly on violence within a geographic border, then basing a political movement on a free (as in speech :) software/IP regime doesn’t sound like a very good idea.

hardware, upon which the IP ‘ecosystem’ depends is demonstratively not a public good, so to speak. an appeal to enlightened self-interest is nice and all, but it cannot be trusted as such. you want to own your own hardware, or at least have guaranteed access to it, and that is antithetical to the F/OSS spirit.

but i think F/OSS does recommend itself to a cultural movement, and perhaps as benkler suggests, an economic one as well. and, getting even more speculative, this may eventually in turn affect the political unit.

tim f mentions hardt & negri, in which their concept of “the multitude” includes the possibility of some kind of cosmopolitan global citizenship. i.e. the rights and protections now afforded global capital, and increasingly IP around the world, should also be extended to people as well, viz. the purpose of migration — ‘voting with one’s feet’. this can sort of be seen in transnational projects like the EU where, for example, once stateless peoples like the roma née gypsies are now at least nominally citizens within a superstate. or like corsica is granted greater autonomy because french devolution is no longer perceived as threatening in an enlarged rubric.

of course this could be subject to balkanization as stephenson describes in snowcrash and the diamond age (as burbclaves and phyles, respectively). ‘communities of interest’ after all would naturally have associated difficulties with each other in context (cf. identity politics); just look at the parties’ scrum for control over the gov’t apparatus or the F/OSS camps’ over limited developer resources and ‘mind-share’.

a more nuanced view i think could be applied by incorporating the EFF’s idea of creative commons license flexibility for fair-use into a model of citizenship. this is the conception of a political unit as a feature-rich, well-documented, open and exposed API — a modular plug-and-play community, if you will. or like, instead of the primacy of birthplace or country of origin, the “meta-data” of everyone (all six billion of us, pets too!) could be tracked (discretely?) and we’d all be members of multiple affinity groups. people as packets…

btw here’s a survey of the literature by george saunders on ‘fluid-nations’ :D cf. imagined communities


clew 09.17.04 at 2:15 am


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