Yochai Benkler describes Open Source as a methodology of “commons based peer production”. This means work made collaboratively and shared publicly by a community of equals. For Eric Raymond the virtue of Open Source is its efficiency. Open Source can create better products faster than the old closed source model. Many of the most successful software programs in use today, particularly on the internet, are Open Source.
Applying the ideas of Open Source to other projects, be they political, philosophical or artistic, is more difficult than it might seem. The idea of Open Source as a more efficient means of production has nothing to say about what Open Source politics or art should be like.
To take the example of the Open Congress event at Tate Modern, artists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their art, activists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their organisations, and theorists grinned and invoked Deleuze and Spinoza to cover the gaps.
This confusion is not a problem with the idea of Open Source. Rather it is the intended result of it. The name “Open Source” was deliberately chosen for its meaninglessness and ideological vacuity. This was intended to make the results of a very strong ideology more palatable to large corporations by disguising its origins. That ideology is Free Software.
Free Software is a set of principles designed to protect the freedom of individuals to use computer software. It emerged in the 1980s against a backdrop of increasing restrictions on the use and production of software. Free Software can therefore be understood historically and ethically as the defence of freedom against a genuine threat.
Once software users freedoms are protected the methodology that we know as Open Source becomes possible and its advantages become apparent. But without the guiding principles of Free Software the neccessity and direction of Open Source cannot be accounted for. Open Source has no history or trajectory, it cannot account for itself or suggest which taasks are neccessary or important. Free Software requires freedom, which is a practical goal to pursue.
Free Software is a historical development, a set of principles, and a set of possibilities. Free Software projects have converged on the methodology that Raymond describes as Open Source because of this. To describe this methodology as “commons based peer production” causes further confusion. There are no peers in a Free Software project. If contributions are deemed to be of acceptable quality, they are added to the project by its appointed gatekeepers. If not, they are rejected and advice given. This methodology is a structured and exclusive one, but it is meritocratic. Any contribution of sufficient quality can be accepted, and if someone makes enough such contributions they themselves may gain the trust required to become a gatekeeper.
This confusion leads to projects such as Wikipedia trying to create an open space for anyone to use as they wish. This leads to social darwinism, not freedom, as the contents of that space is determined by a battle of wills. Wikipedia has had to evolve to reproduce many of the structures of a real Free Software project to tackle these problems. But people still regard its earlier phase as a model for emulation, whereas it should serve as more of a warning.
It is therefore the condition of Freedom rather than the condition of Open Source that art should aspire to. Prior to the extension of copyright to cover art as well as literature, art was implicitly free. The physical artefacts of art were expensive to own and difficult or impossible to transport. But the content of art was free to use. Michaelangelo could rip off christian and pagan imagery to paint a ceiling, generations of artists could riff on the theme of the cruxifiction, and anyone could carve a statue of Venus. The representational freedom of artists, part of which is the freedom to depict and build or comment on existing culture, to continue the conversation of culture, is the freedom of art.
With photography and now electronic media, copyright and trademarks have increasingly restricted the artists freedom to continue the conversation of culture. Where once artists could paint gods and kings, they must now be careful not to paint chocolate and the colour purple or they will infringe Cadbury’s trademark. And new computer technology makes it possible to physically lock artists out of mass media imagery, closing off part of the world from art’s freedom of representation.
In this context artists are not volunteers when they take on issues of cultural freedom. They are exemplars. Free art, a free culture, is of vital importance for a free society. Part of this freedom may be ideas of “commons based peer production”. But it is important not to confuse the results of an ideology with its principles. It is these principles that artists should pursue.
How then can art learn from Free Software?
Artists should campaigning to oppose the extension of copyright and trademark law and the reduction of fair use.
Artists should use copyleft licensing to ensure the free circulation of ideas.
Artists who are interested to do so can investigate the use of collaborative project management.
Artists who are interested to do so should produce work to show the value of fair use and the public domain.
Artists who are interested to do so should challenge copyright maximalists and censors by using mass media imagery and transgressive imagery.
Artists should use Free Software and free (or “open”) file formats for accessibility, and help drive improvement of them.
What mistakes of Open Source can people avoid?
Read “Free Software Free Society” and “Free Culture”, not “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”.
Don’t try to organise your organisation in an “Open Source” way. That methodology is for content, not structure.
Don’t try to emulate early Wikipedia’s world-writeability. Emulate the meritocratic model that Wikipedia is converting to instead.
Don’t hide your ideology. Renaming “Free Software” to “Open Source” has cost the people who have done so the biggest software market in the US, as the military are much more comfortable with “freedom” than they are with “openness”.
What are good examples?
Open Clip Art Library.