Rhea Myers

Fisking Fisking Fisking Lessig's New Permission Culture

In response to my rant on Lessig’s blog comments pages (reproduced on this blog as “Fisking Lessig’s New Permission Culture”) M. David Peterson writes:

Only one economy? I’m sorry, but I disagree.

In the comments, piers writes:

[…] it seems the free (as-in-speech) economy is already inherent in the software development triangle of resources, time and money […]

And Peterson agrees. And so do I. Which is why I argued that casting free (as-in-speech) as a separate “economy” from that economic “triangle” is a false dichotomy.

Peterson continues in an update to his post:

While I recognize that the Free Software Foundation has ALWAYS been about free-as-in-speech software, unfortunately there is a free-as-in-beer side effect that in many ways has pigeon-holed their efforts into a “free-as-in-everything” type-cast.

I agree. Eric Raymond’s “gift economy” and the reification of “the commons” that Lessig and apparently Benkler write about are symptoms of this.

I will say it again: these are effects, not causes. Or side effects, as Peterson puts it. Crosbie Fitch also makes this point well with his idea of libertarian and gift-economy factions fighting to set the direction of the GPL 3 revision.

The problem with this, of course, is that you can’t exactly build a business model and an underlying business economy on top of a donation-based revenue stream.

This is the least effective way of making money from Free Software or Free Culture. If you remember “donationware” it’s not a very good way of making money off proprietary software either.

I wrote an article some time ago on “how to make money from free culture”. I’m going to update and expand it at some point.

Let me state this another way: If you want to build a healthy and strong foundation for any given cause, you don’t break the kneecaps of your primary source of revenue, even if you are of the belief that this same mentioned revenue source is the root of all evil.

Most software developers are employed creating and maintaining bespoke software. They can use and contribute to free software for precisely the benefits piers identifies.

Home users and other consumers don’t sell software and so aren’t really worried about software as a source of revenue for them.

This leaves the shrink-wrapped software economy. IBM and Apple’s kneecaps seem very healthy despite their use of and contribution to Free Software.

I would use the phrase “false dichotomy”, but I don’t want to be accused of being a one-trick pony. Free != gratis. But Lessig’s attempt at NC “freedom” makes precisely this mistake.

Given Peterson’s impassioned plea for the religion of the market against the evidence of how software actually relates to society, I have to ask whether he is right to point the finger of faith at GNU’s political position.

This political position is the one that makes the middle ground safe for the likes of Apache and MySQL. And it is GNU’s commitment to freedom that made it possible for Linus to hack “just for fun”.

The military are a massive source of funding for software in the US. They love freedom, but they aren’t so keen on “openness”. This makes the term “Open Source” a bit of an own-goal for those that came up with it to not scare off potential customers.

Moving this away from a religious focus (though I do believe that both the ideological, and in some cases, theological comparison is a fair one), it seems to me their are several FANTASTIC examples (though there are more than just these) of OSS “movements” in which have successfully bridged the gap between corporation and community, and in my own opinion, can be referenced as prime examples of how we can integrate the ideals of a Free Culture with the primary focus of Corporate America.

The projects that Peterson lists are not as popular as the GPL-based GNU/Linux system. But they are good examples of the kind of “pragmatism” that market idealists insist Free Software must display if it is to become as successful as, well, GNU/Linux. I would repeat that companies that have been “pragmatic” towards Free Software seem to have healthy kneecaps.

The point I obviously failed to make in “Fisking…” is that Wikipedia, GNU and other projects are not economic mysteries requiring economic creation after the fact if they are not to evaporate as suddenly as they sprung spontaneously into existence from the economic ether. They are a product of rights (or simulated rights, or whatever). Protect those rights and help people capitalise on their products. But do not try to strike a balance between the inconvenience of those rights and the rewards of the market.

A century ago, Henry Ford paid his workers well so they could afford to buy the cars he made. Google gives its workers a day to work on personal projects. Even Soros speaks of Free Societies as well as Free Markets, and he’s nobody’s fool. The idea is that screwing people out of every penny will not make you as rich as giving them a little freedom.

It is this idea that people who wish to repeat the success of Ford or Google need to work on, not how best to compromise people’s rights in order to reclaim Free Culture for penny capitalism. I do not believe that everything should be only one colour, whether that colour is a dull grey or an enticing shade of green.