Friday, April 06, 2007

peeve no. 247 is equating FLOSS to communism

As with some of my other rants, my problem is not so much the existence of something, but how it is used - its connotations and motivations. Merely comparing FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open-Source Software) to communism per se is not what bothers me. Moreover, to some degree the comparison makes sense. FLOSS code wouldn't be FLOSS if it wasn't possible for the masses to use it, share it, study it, refine it, etc. The code is effectively in a massive "communal pool" (laying aside complications of legal incompatibilties between differently-licensed code...). Developers produce according to their abilities, and users consume according to their needs. If only communism worked this well in practice.

On the other hand, an important distinction divides FLOSS from communism: code can be duplicated at little cost, which makes economic analogies less apt because the "supply side" is virtually limitless. This is the premise of shareware; customers can handle the "manufacturing" and packaging and distribution of the product on their own, reducing everyone's cost/risk. Another distinction is the control of the "means of production". These days, compilers and interpreters and entry-level SDK often cost nothing except the time and bandwidth to download them. Depending on the target platform, no special equipment beyond a common PC may be required to produce code, either. Of course, there's still the cost of labor, but until computers comprehend human language, brainstorm brilliant ideas, design attractive images, and so forth, developers will continue to be required. The essential point is that the topics communism concerns itself with are not directly applicable to software methodology, so communism answers questions software methodologydoesn't ask and ignores other questions software methodology does ask.

Unfortunately, generally speaking, the people who compare FLOSS to communism aren't doing it to start up an interesting discussion. No, they do it to end the discussion with a strategy not far removed from name-calling. To turn people away from a vehicle, say "deathtrap". To turn people away from a philosophy (where I live, anyway), say "communism". And this is what irks me, not that the connection may be somewhat approximate, but that anyone thinks it is a convincing argument against FLOSS. "He has pointy ears, like one of those evil leprechauns, so he must be up to no good!"

What's so scary about sharing? What's so problematic about large numbers of people working together, benefitting everyone at once? Developers can still be paid to make the code (some projects have feature "bounties", and one of the dreams of any FLOSS project founder is to be hired by a company to work on that project full-time). The code can still be sold, though the right of anyone to copy the code does mean the most competitive price will be close to if not exactly zero. Speaking more fundamentally, not all code has to be FLOSS. Or someone could compromise. Conceivably, code could be proprietary at first, until the owner decides he or she has milked it enough, then released as FLOSS. Dual-licensing is another avenue, although many developers will be understandably reluctant to contribute to dual-licensed software. And let's be frank. Some software simply won't be written, or written well, unless pay is involved. I've worked on stuff that was so dull, it felt like work.

Charges of communism are pointless. Embrace the commune. Be not afraid. Think of it as a kibbutz, if that helps.

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