Production of Free Software

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* Article: La production des logiciels libres. Francois Horn. Alice 3: Hiver 2000 » La liberté mise au travail


The Production of Free Software. By Francois Horn. Multitudes Online.


From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2005:

Software is active text, a text that acts. The source-code, written by a human, becomes object-code, i.e. machine instructions, after its transformation by a compiler. The source-code has a meaning and may be easily changed, but the object-code has no apparent meaning and it is very difficult to reconstruct after de-compilation. Source-code gives information about processes, while the object code is the process itself. Software is naturally collective as it is indivisible (it has the same cost, independent of the number of users), as well as non-rival and non-exclusive as concerns usage (it is difficult to impeach a new user). Finally, it can not be appropriated.

Such collective goods cannot be produced optimally by market mechanisms, except perhaps by making it difficult to reproduce itself, but this perverts the market mechanism from a mechanism to manage and eventually reduce scarcity, to one that artificially maintains it.

Horn insists that free software must actually be 'free' (no cost), since they must be freely shareable, and that to argue otherwise is disingeneous . The apparent sale of free software, as practiced by Red Hat, is an illusion, as it is only the associated services that are marketable.

The 'free', no cost argument is important to stress the non-mercantile aspect of free software. If there is competition in free software, it is not for profit, but for prestige and adoption.

Horn stresses that the GPL insists on recognizing the author, whose honour is at stake in the quality of the source code.

He then reviews the advantages of peer production as a method:

   - the parallel development of different independent proposals is possible of which the best will be retained
   - an open, documented and modular architecture
   - it allows the combined contributions and reflections of a geographically dispersed community, which can be a quantum level higher in terms of working time than any other entity
   - rapid prototyping, evolutionary programming
   - the open source code guarantees permanent improvements and updates
   - flexibility, portability independent of the digital carrier, perennity for the long term, compatibility through open standards

Horn notes the difficulty of developing modular software components in a marketplace. To check their compatibilities and side effects, the open source code should be available, but if that is the case, propietariness can not be defended.

To date, two types of commercial firms have supported the positive feedback loop of free software:

   - the FS service companies like Red Hat
   - large computer firms seeing it as a competitive weapon against a rival monopolist.

He fears that they may change their support in the future, becoming 'free riders'