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Ganesh Prasad: How Does the Capitalist View Open Source?

May 16, 2001, 17:05 (82 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Ganesh Prasad)

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By Ganesh Prasad

Open Source advocates are often embarrassed at the suggestion that their favorite type of software may be a socialistic phenomenon.

Though they protest, many secretly fear it may be true. The sharing aspect of Open Source, its emphasis on community and its availability free of charge certainly sound like some form of Socialism. And Open Source doesn't lend itself easily to commercial exploitation. Is it anti-capitalist, then?

The recent pronouncements by Microsoft executives, that there is no value in "free" and that it is impossible to make money by giving away the very thing that is of value, ring true. It would indeed be dreadful to discover that Open Source is anti-capitalist, wouldn't it?

Many advocates of Open Source fervently hope for companies offering Linux-related services to finally turn profits and prove that there is a business model behind Open Source, but such a prospect doesn't seem likely in the near term.

In any case, that's a roundabout way to establish Open Source's capitalist credentials.

A Capital Idea
The fundamental principles of capitalism are laid out very clearly by that hardcore ideologue, Ayn Rand. So we should be able to determine objectively (her favorite word) whether Open Source, especially GPL-ed software, is opposed to the capitalist system.

In each of the following sections, we will look at Rand's view on a particular concept and see how it compares with the state of Open Source and the GPL. That should tell us where Open Source stands with respect to capitalism -- or at least establish "objectively" whether it is friend or foe.

The Wealth of OSs
"Wealth is the result of man's ability to think applied to the sphere of production and trade. Reason, ultimately, is the source of all wealth."

"Fundamentally, wealth is the product of man's mind -- and belongs to each man to the extent that he created it."

"Wealth belongs to the individual who produced it."

Ayn Rand never wrote about software in her lifetime, but she surely would have recognized it as wealth. Indeed, if Rand were to write "The Fountainhead" today, her hero might very well be a programmer rather than an architect. Nothing epitomizes individual human creativity as well as software, being the product of pure mind.

It is probably also safe to assume from her writings that Rand would have considered software to rightfully belong to the programmers who wrote it.

Hot Property
"Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

Ayn Rand believed that there is no such thing as "public property." What is commonly referred to as such is the private property of a government.

She would probably have had no use for "public domain" software, treating it as wealth without an owner. However, Open Source software, including all of GPL-ed software, is copyrighted by its authors, and hence is not "public domain" but clearly privately owned.

Not only that, since the software is owned by none other than its creators, Ayn Rand would have had no argument at all with the property ownership aspect of Open Source.

Heir Apparent
"The right to dispose of one's income belongs to the producer, and if he wishes to give it to an heir, a charity, or to flush it down the toilet -- that is the producer's right. It is not any of your concern, and it certainly is not the concern of the government."

Rand clearly believed that the producer of wealth alone had the right to determine what to do with it, and stated this belief in no uncertain terms.

When we say today that the author of a piece of software gets to choose the license under which to release it, we are echoing Rand.

License To ...
A programmer may release his or her work under a commercial license or an Open Source license, such as the BSD license or the GPL. We may all have our individual preferences for one or another, but as Rand admonishes, the producer alone has the right to decide how to dispose of his or her creation.

Therefore, Rand would have had nothing to say against programmers choosing to release their software under the GPL of their own free will.

Trading Places
"Free competition is the freedom to produce, and the freedom to trade what one has produced, for one's own self-interest, i.e., in the pursuit of one's own happiness."

Rand also wrote that under capitalism, one may obtain property from other people in only one way: by voluntary consent of the other. Rand said that by banning the initiation of physical force, capitalism leaves only one way for people to deal with each other -- through trade, which Rand termed "the highest form of voluntary social cooperation."

Rand was implacable in her opposition to the use of force for any purpose but self-defense. She believed that capitalism is based on individual rights, free will and free choice, not force or fraud.

What would the capitalist view of the general public license (GPL) license be?

The GPL is by no means a coercive or deceptive license. It clearly states the rights and obligations of any party who accepts its terms. It offers access to the intellectual wealth created by a producer, for a certain consideration.

The consideration is that any derived works that are publicly distributed must also be made available under the same terms. This consideration may seem strange, but stranger contracts have been known to exist, which are legally valid and defensible.

The important thing is, there is nothing in the terms of the GPL that is illegal, coercive or deceptive. If the terms of the GPL are unacceptable to any party, those people are at liberty to walk away. However, once they agree to the license, they are bound by its terms and cannot renege on the deal.

Of Contract Bondage
Indeed, our archetype capitalist, Ayn Rand, believed that one of the legitimate functions of a government is to enforce contracts.

So far from Rand considering the GPL an evil socialistic phenomenon, it seems very likely from her writings that she would have seen nothing in it contrary to the principles of capitalism. Under the GPL, there are creators owning their creations, deciding without coercion what to do with it, and entering into voluntary agreements with other free individuals to use and improve their work for mutual benefit.

The GPL is a textbook example of the enlightened self-interest that capitalism talks about. It is clearly a way to increase wealth, not to destroy it, and therefore it is objectively good.

The Money Train
And what about making money? Does Open Source fail the capitalism test on that point? I'd say not as a matter of principle.

Rand always talked about "wealth" rather than money. She recognized that there are many different forms of wealth created by the humans for their enjoyment.

In that view, Rand remains light years ahead of today's self-styled capitalists who see the capitalist system as a system designed to make money.

No Status Quo
"How does capitalism differ from statism? Statism is the opposite of capitalism.

According to Rand, only capitalism declares that each and every person has a right to live his own life and pursue his own happiness. Rand wrote that men live not by permission of others, but by right, and that the role of government is to protect that liberty right because it is inalienable.

Rand believed that individuals must be free to carry out trade with other individuals based on free will. She also identified forces that seek to prevent the functioning of such a free system and called them "statist," because they are enemies of progress.

Since the GPL works according to principles approved of by this capitalist ideal, those who seek to have it outlawed are attempting to interfere with individual freedom. They are therefore statist -- and the real enemies of capitalism. Thus, when software giant Microsoft talks about the need to educate policy makers about the "threat" from Open Source, it is posing a statist threat to capitalist values.

No Guarantee
Supporters of Open Source need not be embarrassed if no corporation makes money from Open Source. Capitalism does not guarantee corporations a profit, and Open Source does not need "proof" of its capitalist credentials.

What is important is that Open Source works exactly according to the principles of capitalism. While many corporations may make significantly less money due to the disruptive effect of Open Source, Open Source will continue to create wealth for its creators to enjoy and to share with everyone of their own free will.

And that is the ultimate measure of its value.

1. Capitalism - "The Unknown Ideal," Ayn Rand (New American Library 1967).
2. Capitalism.org, a Web site devoted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand
Ganesh Prasad is a strong supporter of Linux and Open Source software. He considers himself a capitalist in the broadest sense, because he believes that wealth is potentially limitless and must be sought to be maximized. He also believes that individual wealth is maximized when everyone is wealthy, because of the greater variety and abundance of things to trade, and so it is in the long-term self-interest of everyone to work towards increased global wealth.

Ganesh offers permission to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is available at http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html.

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