Software Commons

An attentive reader of this blog made this private comment about software commons to me a few days ago: There are no real software commons, because you cannot compare these with actual, material commons such as air or water. One should treat software proprietary or free as in freedom, as existing in a legal context made of intellectual property laws such as copyrights, patents, trademarks and the like.

This comment is spiked my interest for two reasons. First, not a lot of people know about the theories around digital commons and second, this reader is actually right. Software is not just immaterial unlike water, ground or air (yes, air is material, just not like in the usual sense people think of the definition of material). Software does not exist in a vacuum – pardon the pun- it exists as a technical, legal, economical, philosophical, social and political reality. In other words, software relies on a series of existing norms, factors and agents such as laws, industries, capital, people to exist, to be distributed and developed. One does not just “find” software under a rock. Even downloading Free Software is possible because there’s a license attached to it that regulates the various conditions for the software to be downloaded and shared.

Does this mean I do not buy in the idea of the software commons? Quite the contrary, and readers of this blog may see from time to time that I’m a great supporter of the theories of Yochai Benkler. Benkler is the first author and scholar who has developed and popularized the theory of software commons, and probably the first to have coined them as commons. Predecessors obviously include Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond and several others. But Benkler was the first one to theorize them as such and a list of publications on his site may help provide more background to interested readers.

Software commons do however exist. My reader may be right – but I believe that his assessment is made on “positive” grounds, meaning that his frame of analysis does not attempt to question the existing norm. Hence his opinion is based “on reality” as one would say. Software commons are disruptive as a theory and as a vision. They do not deny the entire apparatus that makes software what it is today in our society. The theory acknowledges all this but goes beyond by highlighting other factors. For instance, software no longer requires millions of investment by teams of lead researchers to exist. Of course, this kind of investment exists today and may still happen but it is only one possible way to develop software. Depending on the business model, on the initial investment, on the particular strategy and inclination of its authors, software may indeed be expensive and sold as an on-the-shelf product. Or it may be sold as a subscription. Or as a service. Or monetized or valued differently, like Free and Open Source Software. The point of software commons is that creating software is possible without high barriers, as most of them are either artifical (legal constraints such as patents) or vanishing, like the high price for developing software. In the case of Free and Open Source Software, the rights and freedom attached to the software create a reality analogous to what commons were in medieval Europe: a shared resource that is created, maintained, grown and consumed by a community. This type of commons was not something that was ever thought as a black market or a side show: it would feed pretty much every peasant and its family. Commons had various legal standing and recognition: my point is that they were integrated inside a broader national, regional and economic framework.

In this sense, software commons make sense, and because these commons do not effectively exist in some village somewhere in Europe during the Middle Ages, but much rather all over the Internet, they are of primary importance for software and for the world we live in.

Several conclusions could be drawn from this. I will only keep two that matter for this post:

  • Commons cannot really create a product, but they create more or less finite materials that one can turn into a product
  • Commons rely on a community: without it they cannot exist and they must be run based on that notion. There cannot be any expectation as to who else may help or do something for you if you’re part of the community or at least a downstream user of the software.

The theory fo software commons is an important, yet often overlooked theory that bridges together software freedom, culture and economics. I can only urge anyone interested to read about them and make up your own mind.


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