I spent a very pleasant and interesting Friday evening last week with some acquaintances of my son’s – a left group consisting mainly of under-30s – and they were discussing the open source movement. It was an informative meeting, not only by virtue of the well-informed presentation by Martin and Lambert, our German hosts, but also the contributions from the floor. Some were interestingly informed, not least by direct experience of open source development, but also in some cases because of the misunderstandings.
One issue that occurred to me is why, once they have reached a certain level of maturity, the employers of the individuals who actually create open source products like Linux or WordPress do not claim their property rights over the result. After all, who would not want to own Linux or WordPress as a commercial property?
So is there a legal basis for claiming rights over open source systems? I have no idea really, but some years ago, when I was working for a large consultancy, the partnership forced one of its own members to relinquish rights to a very successful book he had written on the grounds that, although he had written it in his own time, they still owned the IPR in anything he developed. This may be a peculiarity of American law, but they certainly won.
So why not Linux or WordPress, or any other open source system? Given that pretty much all such products are probably made by employees of existing companies, presumably they would have the same claim on the end-product as the consultancy I mentioned above. Given the maturity and value of such systems, it is surely time for them to insist on their (piratical, exploitative, deeply immoral) ‘rights’.
When I raised this issue with Martin and Lambert, they replied that it is still in these companies interests to leave these systems under open source control, and point out that many of them actually assign staff to working on open source systems. But I am not convinced that they have any such interests: these are now very mature products, there is a vast market of current and prospective users, and all the risk involved in creating a popular, industrial-strength system has already been taken by unpaid volunteers. And if employers are funding this even more directly, by paying individuals to work on open source projects, I cannot believe that this is for any reason but their own self-interest. In most cases (I would guess) the products are indirectly beneficial to them, as valuable auxiliaries and conduits to their own products and services.
So why aren’t WordPress & Linux and all the rest being claimed as the rightful property of the big corporates? Primarily, I would guess, because they are not easily fitted not their current business models, or even more simply, because it is impossible to divided them up between the various claimants – we simply have no idea who contributed what. It’s not a very good model for a more libertarian approach to development – the result escapes corporate control only because the wolves can’t work out which parts they can rightfully carry off.
(Incidentally, this gives the lie to the idea that open source systems are free or that they represent what could be done if a free community were to set to work on a give problem. Open source projects are funded by companies, whether or not they want to be. It’s just that the funding consists of paying people so much that they are still willing and able to carry out yet more serious development outside work. So open source remains a radically dependent model of development, not a genuine breakthrough from capitalist property rights.)