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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/7029/is-the-open-source-movement-libertarian/

Is the Open Source Movement Libertarian?

August 24, 2007 by

Yesterday the president of the Open Source Initiative attempted to show how the philosophy underscoring the open-source movement and libertarianism are best pals.

But can they even be enemies?

The problem with his argument, along with everyone else that attempts to make “open source” a philosophy on par with other political philosophies, is that the level of code transparency and how it is distributed really boils down to a matter of strategic management.

In other words, in practice the development of FOSS really is not a philosophy per se but rather a business/distribution model. And its cornucopia of offerings were originally designed to work within the framework of an intellectual property (IP) regime (even if IP was not enforced, both closed proprietary software could still exist and arguably would still thrive).

As various libertarian commentators have noted, absent an IP regime, the distribution and development of software could likely be very different than the methods currently employed today.

[Note: before flaming this thread, be sure to read through my archives defending the FOSS movement]While I certainly do sympathize with the notion that “information wants to be free” one of the big problems afflicting the software industry is the IP establishment, specifically software patents and copyrights.

Furthermore, libertarianism is not a philosophy developed to justify a specific business model let alone code development/distribution. It was designed to systematically dissect what actions are justifiable (e.g., the initiation of force/coercion versus consensual exchange).

Therefore it would be fallacious to use or appeal to libertarianism in developing and distributing proprietary ingredients of foodstuffs, clothing materials, or particulates in paint. It is agnostic on these matters.

Apples and oranges

For instance, Chris DiBona (the open source manager at Google) has noted that they pick and choose how and when to develop software based on a number of issues, including the total cost of ownership. And ultimately, they use what is most flexible for their business needs (thus, they have a mix of closed and open source spliced into their systems).

It is strictly a utilitarian argument and one that boils down to the specific needs a business has. The debate surrounding IP is another issue entirely.

See also: Crowdsourcing and Open-Source Software


Manuel Lora August 24, 2007 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the post. I was going to write about this soon actually.

I think that the only aspect where they can intersect, as you said, is copyrights and patents. The rest is just business strategy.

Jaq Phule August 24, 2007 at 8:30 am

Yeah, well, the only place where the entrepreneur and libertarianism meet are on the free market. Everything else is just business strategy and tactics.


Manuel Lora August 24, 2007 at 8:54 am

What? Libertarianism is a theory of justice, of what is criminal and what isn’t. In the context of open source, the issues most often brought up are (software) patents and copyrights. This is a legitimate libertarian concern, because if we say that software patents are not legitimate, that is, they are unjust, then this is NOT a free market, and therefore “do not meet.”

Jaq Phule August 24, 2007 at 9:33 am

“I think that the only aspect where they can intersect, as you said, is copyrights and patents. The rest is just business strategy.”

Possibly I misunderstood. I took this to mean “the only aspect where open source and libertarianism intersect are copyrights and patents, and therefore OS is not too terribly libertarian” which also appears to be the point of the article.

If this is indeed what you are saying, then I am shamelessly lampooning this comment.

“All work is an act of philosophy,” is a quote of exceptional poignancy from a writer with whom we don’t always agree, but you nonetheless may want to revisit in this case. FOSS may not be, first and foremost on the surface, a philosophical undertaking — but neither is business entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur personally, day to day concerns are in terms of mundane matters such as business strategy. The philosophies of free-market, free-from-coercive interaction underlie the actions, even if the actor does not personally condone these ideas.

You can’t separate the ideas from the reality.

Anthony August 24, 2007 at 9:46 am

The point of the article is that there is nothing inherently more libertarian about one business model than another (except, of course, if force is employed – then we are no longer speaking of market interactions.) All that one can say is that x business model is more efficient or more inefficient, and nothing more than that.

Jaq Phule August 24, 2007 at 10:37 am

Market actions is precisely what we are talking about. Software is just *different* from many other traditional industries, and rides the crest of the leading edge of the informational market economy.

With no specialized equipment, anyone with any old computer can take the latest edition of Microsoft Windows, which has taken decades and many billions of dollars of direct effort by Microsoft in development, and make a copy for fractions of a penny in a matter of minutes.

Microsoft has responded to what it perceives as incursions into its property by advancing increasingly strict terms of licensure. Recently, this included mandatory spyware built into the system to ensure compliance.

On the market, the ideas which eventually became FOSS originated with a nastygram sent by Bill Gates to the software community back in the early 1980s. It was a reaction — one that had a more libertarian approach to IP than did Microsoft. It has not, in the vast majority of cases, been more efficient in dollar terms, or even in terms of market share. And yet the model persists and even thrives, for justifications that are not usually given in economic terms. This is a curious aspect of IP that I think y’all are missing.

Here’s an example of how the software industry is different, say, from movie production, which is surprisingly similar. Like making movies, there is a creative push to bring the product to market, which involves a great many discrete and unique tasks, some of which the producers were not expecting at the start of the task. (This is quite contrasted from traditional assembly-line manufacturing, which unfortunately many people believe software production is similar to.) Unlike movies, software these days is maximally useful only if it can interact with other software in an automated or automatable fashion. In order to do this, a developer needs access to the source code, which in movie terms is like the script.

Anthony, I understand you write music. Would it be useful to the consumers of your music if you advertised that you would make your guitar tabs freely available? Do you understand what I mean when I’m saying that this is a different problem altogether from the more mundane music file-sharing concern? It is different, and with new and different implications on libertarianism.

Quite unfortunately, in a closed-source world, a client developer must frequently hack into the system with which he needs to interact in order to find out how to do this. Software documentation is usually quite poor and done as an afterthought, if ever. This kind of hacking violates the terms of the stated contract. Quite often, one needs to interact with the operating system, or productivity software. In an open-source world, where the source code is freely available, interactions are easy to chart and plan without legal implications.

When you claim that there are no libertarian IP implications in this, methinks you may not fully understand the problem.

Anthony August 24, 2007 at 11:14 am

I don’t know where you got the idea that I write music – I’m an economics student (I didn’t get the guitar tabs analogy either.) Be that as it may, I am still not sure what is inherently libertarian about all this – it merely shows the various adjustments agents on the market might make. IP is a libertarian concern though (for the reason that many libertarians consider IP laws unjust and a use of force in the market.) Other than the use of force though, how markets operate is purely a matter of catallactic interest.

Ron August 24, 2007 at 12:45 pm

I’d like to propose a slightly different way of looking at the issue of IP (or copyrights or patents):

When an individual or group of individual creates a thing, whether it be a pair of shoes, a curling iron, a movie, or a piece of software, that person(s) is the rightful owner of the created thing. As such, he/she/they are free to dispose of it in any way that is agreeable to him/her/them. In the case of things that may be reproduced for profit, that disposal amounts to an agreement between the producer and the consumer. Each person who consumes the thing, whether in exchange for money, another thing, or nothing at all (as in the case of FOSS) is essentially entering into a contract with its producer, and the consumer and producer are both bound by the terms of that agreement.

With licensed software, music CDs, movie DVDs, or whatever, that agreement govern the acceptable use of the item by the consumer. This is a Libertarian concept in that the act of purchasing or otherwise obtaining the item constitutes a purely voluntary transaction between producer and consumer.

In this regard, FOSS is no more or less a Libertarian concept than any other voluntary transaction or agreement. The producer has chosen to voluntarily distribute the thing he/she/they have made with a minimum of (or possibly even no) conditions attached.

That said, FOSS can be said to be “more” Libertarian than closed-source software in that it doesn’t rely on patents to prevent others who may come up with the same idea completely independently from the patent-holder from profiting from their ideas. The independent entrepreneur is held hostage by the government-granted monopoly on the intellectual property of whom ever happened to get to the patent office first.

8 August 24, 2007 at 1:43 pm

Open Source code could also be considered communist. In fact, I would guess a lot of open source people could be communists. Or maybe religious people doing acts of charity. Imagine if an order of monks became open source coders.

spiff August 24, 2007 at 3:45 pm

please leave bill gates out of this argument. he has no intellectual standing and no community respect. you would not ask george bush to this debate, would you?.

no. nor should you invite bill gates.

ask some respected people:

linus torvalds,
eben moglen,
richard stallman,
mark shuttleworth

you know the list

Rufus Polson August 24, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Hmmm . . . thinking about the implications of that transaction for a moment, are there not significant implications in terms of property rights? The fact is that if you “buy” a piece of closed software, the rights you gain are extremely limited. You don’t end up owning the software–you in effect rent a copy under very restrictive conditions in terms of just what you can do with it. Not being able to copy it yourself is just the tip of the iceberg; you often can’t transfer it to a different computer, for instance, and you certainly can’t look at it to see what makes it tick, take it apart, or put it together again differently. In the case of Microsoft, often you’re not even allowed to talk about it in certain ways without their permission.

Contrariwise, if you “buy” a copy of open sourced software you are much closer to “true” unfettered property ownership–arguably far closer than a typical homeowner is to ownership of their home, what with zoning restrictions, pollution laws and so on. You can take it apart, put it back together again, copy it, resell it, move it and so forth. Licenses differ slightly in their implications, but the general difference between any license that meets the Open Source Definition or the standards to be considered Free Software, and the industry standard in EULAs for closed software, is like night and day in this regard.

Surely if Libertarianism insists on the strong ethical implications of property rights, the distinction between open source and closed software goes to the root of such implications one way or another.

Anthony August 24, 2007 at 3:52 pm

All libertarianism can say is that it is up to property owners to dispose of their property in ways they deem best – provided they harm no one else in the process (by way of force.) If it is necessary for a firm’s business model to succeed for it to restrict the terms of ownership related to its product, there is nothing inherently unlibertarian about this.

Jacob Shreffler August 24, 2007 at 3:59 pm

FOSS has different sects, some of which are not utilitarian. For example, the Free Software Foundation is based on the belief that it is unethical to restrict distribution and modification of software source code in any way (other than charging for the act of copying, or as punishment for an unethical person). On the other hand, the OSI supports FOSS as a practical business model.

Libertarianism has quite a bit to do with the ethics of FOSS practices. For example, would it be appropriate for Alice to prevent Bob from making copies on his own computer in retaliation for Bob doing the same to Alice? If the article being copied is under the FSF General Public License, then the courts will help Alice retaliate in that way. Since click-wrap licenses don’t always constitute contracts, FOSS licenses sometimes act as weapons to defend legitimate property in a way that non-FOSS licenses cannot.

Curt Howland August 24, 2007 at 4:04 pm

There is one fundamental way in which Libertarianism and OpenSource software are alike, and it’s an important one:

Both are entirely voluntary.

Unlike, for example, the Microsoft End User License Agreement(s) which are legally binding and I have to agree with them before I can use their products, there is no such restriction on the use of F/OSS.

Unlike what I have to agree to in the MS-EULA, I can copy F/OSS as often as I like, put one “copy” on as many machines as I like, give it to whom I like, even sell it.

The only restriction on F/OSS is that I may not restrict anyone else’s use of F/OSS. If I make a change, and distribute it, I must allow those changes to be used just as I was able to use what came to me.

Libertarianism is, at its core, that coercion against others is wrong. That, even with the best of “ends”, the “means” of coercion are not justified.

I must allow, as it were, everyone else the same rights that I have.

Immortal August 24, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Apples to oranges is right, they are just not the same thing.

IP is an artificial construct, forced upon society. Open Source is society’s reaction to IP, a kind of self-defense.

Libertarianism on the other hand, is society’s reaction to the use of force in general, including IP.

So they’re different things:

  • Open Source cures a symptom (IP)
  • Libertarianism cures the disease (coercion)

Eric S. Raymond August 24, 2007 at 4:42 pm

Tim Swanson says that “the level of code transparency and how it is
distributed really boils down to a matter of [business] strategic
management. He is so right, and so very wrong!

Excuse me for a moment while I lay out my credentials. I wrote the
propaganda line that Tim has swallowed. I founded (or at least
re-invented) the modern open-source movement when I taught the
partisans of “free software” to use the language of free-market
economics and rational-choice theory (in the papers collected as The Cathedral
and the Bazaar). I am also a libertarian of long standing and of
a somewhat harder-core variety than my esteemed friend Michel Tiemann,
and was the co-founder and first president of the organization he now

Like all the most effective propaganda, “open source is just a
business decision” derives its effectiveness from being true. But it
would be equally true to say that the open-source movement is run by a
conspiracy of subversives who aim to show by example that a
decentralist, open, and voluntarist system of software production is
superior to a centralist, secretive, and coercive one — and that
hell, yes that’s a libertarian demonstration bearing on
deeper political questions.

As I tell my speaking audiences when the subject comes up: Yes, I’m
an anarcho-capitalist. No, you don’t have to buy my politics to
realize that open source is good for your business. But is what you learn
from the method is that you don’t need all the heavy coercive apparatus
of traditional management, that it in fact gets in the way of
deriving the most efficient results from your production inputs — then that
lesson is part of what I intended, too, and yes you should be
thinking about how it applies elsewhere.

That’s one way in which Michael’s claim is valid. Another is that the
theoretical roots of the modern open-source movement are deeply interwined
with Austrian economics and libertarian political theory. One of the reasons
I was able to explain the movement to itself in the late 1990s is because
I had been prepared for that job by nearly twenty years of thinking about
phenomena like Hayekian implicit knowledge and the conditions for emergence
of stable cooperation in ungoverned populations of autonomous actors.

I can be even more specific than that and say that David Friedman’s
The Machinery of Freedom and his style of consequentialist
argument from efficiency considerations was directly ancestral to both
the rhetoric and the conclusions of today’s open-source movement. The
link was through me as one of the movement’s two principal theoreticians,
and through many other senior open-source hackers (notably including
Michael Tiemann) who saw where I was going and, being libertarians
themselves, ran with it.

Anthony August 24, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Curt: “Unlike, for example, the Microsoft End User License Agreement(s) which are legally binding and I have to agree with them before I can use their products, there is no such restriction on the use of F/OSS.”

Say that in an anarcho-capitalist society MS sold its products on the condition that the end-users adhered to the terms stipulated. The courts will enforce this contract. Where is the non-libertarian element in all this? You could say in the present regime MS would make recourse to State-owned courts and benefits from IP laws etc., but the situation I outlined would be perfectly justifiable.

Curt Howland August 24, 2007 at 5:55 pm

Anthony, “Say that in an anarcho-capitalist society MS sold its products on the condition that the end-users adhered to the terms stipulated.”

I agree that there is nothing openly coercive about MS restricting how its property is used. Since I personally object to the restrictions in the EULA, I am very glad that I have no reason to use MS software.

Maybe it’s because I take the MS EULA seriously, while the vast majority of people subject to the EULA have never read it. They “click through” without any attention paid to it other than as one more check-box on the way to the login prompt.

If MS tried to enforce its EULA in a “free market” court, I would ask how could they know the end user had read it at all?

Or in the other direction, I think there would be far greater rejection of the MS EULA _if_ people realized they were entering into a legally binding contract by checking that little “Yes” button.

I’m also not convinced that the EULA is enforcible simply from the fact that I only see it after I have purchased the product, taken it home, opened the box and begun the install. I believe that the well-documented obfuscation of the refund process if one does not in fact agree to the EULA when it is presented could well be a positive defense.

On an economic rather than legal issue, have you read the wonderful article “Windows Is Free” on the tlug.jp Tokyo Linux Users Group site?

Sadly, the original article seems to have vanished, thus the google cached copy.

The gist of it is that, for many (if not most) non-commercial users, Windows is economically free. The Microsoft copy protection is easily broken, copied casually and universally.

Anyway, I found it a very interesting read from a relative value/utility standpoint.

Immortal August 24, 2007 at 6:32 pm

OK, then

“Is the Open Source Movement Libertarian?”


Anthony August 24, 2007 at 7:05 pm

Alright, I understand your position now better Curt. Thanks.

Black Bloke August 24, 2007 at 11:14 pm


Eric S. Raymond showed up!

Han Solo August 24, 2007 at 11:16 pm

Why does it have to be POLITICAL for people to share and build upon each others work?

What Galleleo political when he shared his discoveries? Was Newton? Should Einstein have payed money to the Newton family for using their Intellectual Property? Should Copernicus patented his view of the solar system, and demanded copyright on any drawing of the planets orbiting the SUN? What about the discovered methods of surgery or medicine?

This concept of exclusive owning thoughts, or ideas, or concepts is what is new to the human race, not that Open Source is such a radical new idea. The human condition has been FURTHERED throughout history by people working together, sharing and building upon one another’s intellectual work. If we stop that then we are doomed to go no further as humans than we are right here, right now today.

Open source just shines a light on how stupid, selfish and closed minded we have become in the world today.

Where would the sciences of physics, medicine, biology, engineering, mathematics be today if not for the sharing of ideas and intellectual works and building upon the work of those that came before? Why does computing have to be different than medicine or physics?

Thank goodness people didn’t have these selfish ideas throughout history or we would all still be rubbing sticks together to make fire to heat our mud huts.

Anthony August 25, 2007 at 6:10 am

Do you also consider private property in resources “evil” and “selfish”? Because if you’re going to critique IP, at least use appropriate criticisms.

Matthew Barnes August 25, 2007 at 12:38 pm

FOSS demonstrates that people, out of no motivations but internal ones engage in community efforts for the benefit of many.

The stance that people do good things because they are good ideas is a libertarian tenet. FOSS may not be a direct libertarian movement. It existence is proof of the veracity of libertarian philosophy applied.

Paul G August 25, 2007 at 5:30 pm

The matter of agreements came up, so I am posting this section from an article I wrote, if that’s OK:

“When a CD is purchased, for example, money is put down and a product is received. I submit that there is no proper lease/non distribution agreement. If there was, it would indeed be dishonest to violate an agreement voluntarily entered into.

A key moral issue here is the legitimacy of an agreement.

Most governments recognize something called ‘constructive notice’. For example, this means that if a business sticks ‘LLC’ or ‘Ltd.’ after its name and you become a customer or supplier, you are taken to have agreed that the owners can dodge their debts to you (‘limited liability’) if it asks the government for permission (declares bankruptcy etc.) To incorporate in this way is a moral choice made by the owners to join in this alliance with the State, as it is perfectly possible to operate without incorporation and there are good sized businesses which do not. In the US at least, churches are free to operate without incorporation also and an increasing number do so.

Another form of ‘constructive notice’ is the small print that comes with a product like a CD. Does this constitute a real agreement?

Of course not – it is one sided. You might just as well scribble ‘sold, absolutely’ on your own sales receipt and call that an agreement. On the internet, the same goes for ‘click here to accept terms.’ With no less moral legitimacy you could, prior to purchase, send an email stating your terms and that if they did not prevent the transaction, take it as agreed to.

It is perfectly acceptable in private business to enter into proper, signed or verbal, nondisclosure agreements. Software enhancements are often done in this way. But mass sellers do not require this, it would hit mass sales and it is practically impossible to prevent purchaser’s friends or third parties accessing and copying software or music/video.

Instead, everything is turned on its head through a government monopoly grant called ‘copyright.’ It is entirely involuntary. We are forced into an agreement, like it or not. But it is a lie: you never did agree not to copy.

This is the basis of a big business/big government alliance that affects many areas of life and business. It is one pillar of our modern hierarchical corporate state along with forced limited liability, monopoly central banking (huge loans to favoured corporations with money created from thin air), zoning, ‘eminent domain’ and other land control – and of course taxes, regulations and mandates. These and other factors have created the trend of big business getting bigger along with its ally, big government.”

TGGP August 26, 2007 at 11:31 am

Immortal, libertarianism has yet to cure the disease of coercion and I highly doubt it ever will.

averros August 28, 2007 at 7:15 am

> Eric S. Raymond showed up!

Hmmm… I suspect he was around for a long time. Hi, Eric. It is not only the hackerish sense of humor which transcends the barriers, eh?

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