The Catallactics of Free Software


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In June 1995, I had a very fruitful exchange of ideas with Dr. David Philip Quinn (then in Hong-Kong, now at the Illinois Institute of Technology); we intended to write together an article on the economics of free software, but the event did not happen, to my great disappointment, since our points of view were apparently divergent. After all these years, and being encouraged by the constant misunderstanding of the free software phenomenon by the growing public that comes to be aware of it, I've decided that I might as well recycle the notes that I wrote during this collaboration, and publish a remastered and augmented version of them, taking into account what I learnt since.

I've begun writing this article on 1998-06-13, and it's still mostly a draft...

The Catallactics of Free Software

Catallactics and Freedom

Catallactics is the theory of exchange of services, which brings a broader and more accurate point of view than common Economics on economic phenomena, for it does take into account exchange situations done by negociated or forced agreement, where not everything is tradeable for money, where a common currency might not exist yet, where exchanged services may not be legally acknowledged or explicitly stated, where law might not exist yet, where the terms of exchange contracts may not be well defined, where property rights might not exist yet. Even when currency, law, and contracts may be well defined, Catallactics may still take into accounts other exchanges that may happen outside of the currency system, outside of the legal system, without consideration of property rights. It is a more general and more accurate point of view than common Economics on the phenomena at stake in the social, economical, and other interrelations between humans, or members of a same society in general.

This article will try to study the catallatics of the free software phenomenon, whose success is perfectly suited to question the common purely economical point of view on resource management. It will be an occasion to reassert the advantages of freedom versus hoarding, of property versus plunder. For the case about Free Software is that of free trade of software services versus protectionism of software services, so we could take any generic article about free trade, and adapt it directly to the subject of Free Software. As for specificities of software, since software is only a generic case of information, and free software a particular point of view on science, we could also take any existing article about science, change a few words, and republish it as an article about the software!

Free Software, not Software for Free

Free software, in its strict meaning, is information that everyone is free to use, republish, and modify, though usually with restrictions involving not being able to abuse people with or about the authorship of the information, and not being able to further restrict the liberty of users of the software. The word "free" here, means "free of rights"; it is related to freedom and civil rights, and corresponds to the french word "libre", as in Liberty. It does not mean "free of charge", nor does it refer to costlessness (or even cheapness), which would in French have it be translated as "gratis"; copies of free software can very well be sold; they have been sold and are being sold on a regular basis; only no one has exclusivity on selling copies of free software or on improving it.

Free software as such was first theorized in the early/mid nineteen eighties by Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, the Free Software Foundation, and the League for Programming Freedom. We can, however, consider that it was practised much earlier, and it can be considered as always having been the norm thoughout academia, since freely usable, publishable, and modifiable information is the very mechanism by which science is built. If we generalize the concept from mere "computer software" to any and all possible information (and considering AI and expert systems or documentation, there is no sensible limit between the two concepts), the phenomenon is as old as science itself, and was fully grasped at least since the works of Karl Popper.

The theory of Free Software does not in any way oppose to liberal economics; this appears clearly in the very founding GNU Manifesto itself: it considers that services, such as research and development, installation, guaranteeing fitness or availability, fixing bugs, providing support, teaching, etc, are the productive activities that add value and should be rewarded, and subject to the usual laws for evaluation and exchange of services. What it opposes is ownership of software, which prevents free and fair evaluation and exchange of such services, and constitutes an anti-social act, that should be avoided and discouraged; some, among which I am, go as far as to claim that law institutions should forbid it, or at least, that it should cease to provide artificial protection to it, and provide incentives for it.

Free Software, for Free

Now, it so happens that most free software existing these days was developed literally for free (here, as in free of charge); that is, the service of developing the software was done in the spare time of programmers not having been paid in any way for it. Even when free software is written as part of a paid work, it is seldom acknowledged as a significant part of that work, since acknowledgement by the management too often entails want of proprietarization of the software.

Certainly, there has been some amount of free software that was developed out of an explicit, knowledgeable funding; but support of free software in the corporate (or even official academic) world is mostly non-existent. Most businessmen, politicians, or journalists have hardly heard about its existence; and very few heard what it was really about, not to talk about knowing or understanding it. Awareness of the phenomenon is increasing rapidly, though, so perhaps the above statement will be obsolete by the time it is read.

Nonetheless, it is remarkable that despite this almost total lack of acknowledgement and funding by established social and economical infrastructures, the free software phenomenon has grown to such a size as it has, providing software among the finest that exists, and in many domains, unprecedented and unrivaled software. Undoubtly, such a success implies that free software must have some relative superiority or advantage as compared to other resource-attracting phenomena; it is the purpose of this article to analyze what this superiority of advantage is.

Skilled Programming Time

Programming is an activity that demands some non-negligible human capital before it may be undertaken; it relies on the comfort of the most advanced modern technology and on a certain amount of education, be it academic or self-taught, all of which takes money or equivalently time to acquire. It more importantly requires some dedication, like all arts and crafts, and a mind oriented towards abstraction and learning. All in all, only a combination of financial and intellectual elite has access to this activity; yet, an excess of wealth in either finance, intellect, or both, will likely result in one not ever approaching computer programming either, or one rather developing traditionally money-friendly proprietary software.

The Free Software phenomenon is even more selective as to who can actively participate, since it is based on peer review of globally (well, largely enough) freely shared code, and eliminates both those who don't have access to means of global code sharing (aka the Internet), and those whose skills do not suffice to adapt to the existing software base and build from it software susceptible to raise a large enough interest. Actually, there might well be people writing free software that is not available on the Internet, or that isn't of much interest besides it's author's own; it wouldn't benefit as much from the advantages of Free Software development (it could still benefit from the free software code base), or contribute as much to it (it would still be part of it however); but it would still have the constraints of free software.

To summarize, software development is an intrinsically costly (and hopefully valuable) activity, it is skilled labor time. Free software tends to raise this cost (we'll see about value), yet rejects any hope of direct a posteriori financial retribution in the forms of license fees. Unpaid free software raises this cost even more, since it requires being done by people who be otherwise rich or skillful enough to have the spare time necessary to program without being paid. Yet again, most free software development is unpaid these days, so the mystery about it deepens; or does it not?

Lack of Financial Expectations

Most contributors to Free Software projects have been doing their free software development work without any hope of payment in the foreseeable future. Or rather, without any hope of financial payment. For not all goods are easily convertible in money.

This only hardens the constraints on free software programmers, since not only must they be highly-skilled people, but they must also earn a comfortable enough living so as to have spare time in which to write free software; actually, the burden may be pushed towards their families, who'd otherwise provide them means of subsistance, or to their companies, when free software is a byproduct of their professional activity. In any case, the lack of possible compensation in today's settings for most free software development does impose a high barrier of entry to the writing of free software. Yet this writing happens!

Of course, there has been a growing quantity of free software being developped under explicit funding, including key technology, (for instance, Cygnus has been a major actor in the development of GCC and other free compiler technology).


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