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The Free software movement in perspective

The great social promise of the free software movement, that free software can lead to free society, is a great ideology. In this article, I first try to explain why data is the biggest driver for many reforms that are taking place and further I’ll try to explain the relations related to this ideology.

Data and the UN
The free speech is guaranteed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, speaks directly to the Internet age: Article 19 guarantees that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Free Software Movement claim open or free access to information. To ensure User Freedoms (to build and maintain a community of equal opportunity and social solidarity; this is the main goal for the Free Software Movement), FSF advocates copyleft ownership; more specific the GPL license.

Viewed as a system of production, FOSS projects have been referred to as a “commons” (Bollier, 2002; Goldman and Gabriel, 2005), but, to be more precise, they are a “common property regime” (Schweik, 2005). The Free Software commons is in fact dependent on a particular version of private property, namely copyright. Copyright law constitutes the legal foundation upon which they rest as a movement, using the power of its enforcement mechanisms to ensure certain freedoms for all.

For this reason, we will understand Free Software better, when we understand it as property. And we will understand property better, when we understand it as including commons.

The conventional notion of property is, of course, the right to exclude your from using something that belongs to me. Property in Free Software is configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to exclude. This hack on copyright, creates commons.

The Free Software movement is “vitally concerned” with copyright reform and abolition of software patents, but they are not vitally concerned with substantial reforms of property relations in the tangible realm, on the contrary. The material foundations of cyberspace – and thus the realm in which software development takes place – is certainly part of the infrastructure that allows Free Software to come into being in the first place. Without a critical approach to ownership in the tangible realm the Free Software movement will remain vulnerable to enclosure led by those capital interests.

But there is one problem:
The production and distribution of information is a key source of wealth in the digital age and creates a new set of conflicts over capital and property rights that concern the right to distribute and gain access to information. With these restrictions on the access and use of information there is a corresponding restriction on the use of ideas and concepts. The Free Software movement is working to reform copyright law. They do not by any means want to eliminate copyright law, since without copyright the GPL loses its trespassory protection and hence means of defence.

Ultimately the success of open source is a political story. The open source software process is not a chaotic free-for-all in which everyone has equal power and influence. And is is certainly not an idyllic community of like-minded friends i which consensus reigns and agreement is easy. In fact, conflict is not unusual in this community; it’s endemic and inherent to the open source process. The management of conflict is politics and indeed there is a political organization at work here, with the standard accouterments of power, interests, rules, behavioral norms, decision-making procedures, and sanctioning mechanisms. But it is not a political organization that looks familiar to the logic of an industrial-era political economy.

I acknowledge FOSS as a strategic and crucial Common for knowledge society, as part of a Free Culture.

Digital Goods are a combination of signals, electronically represented as 0 and 1. As such they build a system of information which can express different contents, for example music, texts, pictures, numbers or algorithms. To put it briefly and precisely, ”products made up of matter cannot be sent as data”. But everything else can: Sound, text, picture and algorithms (software) can be expressed as digital data.

The existence of such immaterial content is not new, but rather the form in which it can be expressed now. So, a digital good is a result of the developement of the information and communication technology. The new quality of this technology is that not only can the information be transformed into data, but it can also be sentthrough the world wide internet and it is a characteristic of these goods that they increase and don’t decrease when they are passed on. What I want to say is that they double when reproduced which is normal in copying processes but in the case of digital goods they double without a loss in quality and they double to almost zero costs. One can say that through the new technologies the productivity in reproducing information could be raised dramatically – supply is potentially infinite.

This is an enormous potential for big gains for the so called content industry. And since the internet is open to commercialization there is a growing tendency to commodify digital data: There is a push to sell music as single tracks and text as single papers or as e-books. Newspapers demand fees for the access to their archive and even to actual single articles, just to mention a few examples. Because of the commodification and the restrictive protection of digital data, people fear the undermining of the fair use doctrine, the limitation of the first amendment and a “copyright imperialism” initiated by big content industries.

This is where the concept of the commons or puplic goods comes into place.

Since according to Dahlander (2004) the FLOSS community protects the commons from being depleted by commercial firms.
See for instance “Patent Reform Is Not Enough” available online at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/patent-reformis-not-enough.html

The concept of the commons has a long heritage. The Romans distinguished between different categories of property, these were: Firstly, res privatæ, which consisted of things capable of being possessed by an individual or family. The second, res publicæ, which consisted of things built and set aside for public use by the state, such as public buildings and roads. The third, res communes, which consisted of natural things used by all, such as the air, water and wild animals. The commons, or res communes, has had an important social function in our society, it provides a shared space, a resource that is shared within a community, a network of ideas and concepts that are non-owned. Ever since the rise of capitalism, people have been putting fences around the commons and declaring “this is mine”.

A commons is a shared interest or value. If you want to be a steward of the commons, it will help to begin with some knowledge of the common law of ownership.

Most existing commons, however, are highly structured commons with a set of principles, rules, norms and, in general, specific ways of living together in order not to face a tragedy. These community-defined rules and principles have developed over time through cooperation and in the case of natural resources, observations of the land. Communities structure commons and commons structure communities.

If you like this subject, I suggest to read this: http://commoning.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/jmp-essay-full-the-commoner1.pdf

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