September 18, 2002

· Internet

A breathtakingly ill-informed column from David Henderson over at Techcentral Station on the evils of free and open-source software.

Socialism is dead and buried, right?

Well, not quite. Utopian communes are actually thriving in cyberspace, designing software that is sometimes as good as the best from Silicon Valley. And market economists like me are scrambling to understand how unpaid volunteers working through the Internet can possibly compete with some of the most successful software companies in the world.

In fact, says Henderson, “one might well ask whether Washington should be encouraging the distribution of software under license terms that make it virtually impossible for for-profit software makers to incorporate government research in their own products.”

Who is responsible for this appalling state of affairs? Someone must be to blame. Ah, I know:

[S]ome programmers with a taste for the counterculture or an aversion to corporate life have gone their own way. They have chosen to write software collectively for no pay and then publish the source code and allow anyone to use and modify it for free…

Collective! No pay! It’s communism, I tell you, spread by evil commune-dwelling “counterculture” types too lazy, drug-addled and hairy to get a real job. Those people should pay their debt to society and go out there and do something productive instead of sitting around all day smoking weed, eating pizza and writing high-quality software that they make freely available to people without cha—- um, never mind. Lets focus on the role of the government instead.

But allowing taxpayers’ money to be used to promote the GPL … is another story entirely… [I]t artificially reduces the potential return to government investment in research. Imagine where we’d be if pharmaceutical companies had not been allowed to use government research, and the development of drugs based on that research had been left to non-profits or government agencies. Thousands of people would be dead who are now alive, courtesy of some of today’s “miracle” drugs.

And imagine where we’d be if taxpayer-funded computer software was made freely available to taxpayers who wanted to use it, and the applications and standards developed in them were kept open. Think of the negative consequences! I mean, teenagers or young children might be able to freely download and learn to use the same industrial-strength software development environments used by computer professionals—- stuff that twenty years ago was only available to people working at places like Bell Labs and MIT. That might lead to more innovation and—- um, never mind.

What should happen, of course, is that these innovations should be freely available mainly to entrepreneurs who could then turn them into closed-source products they could restrictively license—- sorry, I mean sell—- at very high prices. That’s the cycle of innovation, folks. And if you want a clear argument for why I’m right, just remember that when you download free software, you are killing pediatric cancer patients. If you had bought Windows ME instead, your computer might now be dead, but those children would still be alive.

The General Public License amounts to an insidious attack on a hybrid system of public and private enterprise for developing software that has served us well. Washington has no business joining the free software conspiracy.

Remember: laissez-faire means that companies should always be able to appropriate and privatize the products of government-funded research. So, do not join the “free software conspiracy,” that large international community of politically heterogenous people, including many right- or libertarian-leaning professionals, who write code in a public and transparent way, subject it to peer review, and release it under a wide variety of licenses that share a commitment to open software code and standards—- um, never mind. I mean, do not join the “free software conspiracy,” that sinister cabal of countercultural socialist ideologues who meet in secret to write software with poisonously open licenses that they foist on unwilling users through illicit and propagandist means, all the while causing the deaths of seriously ill children.

All Posts by Date · All Posts by Category


I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



To receive updates from this site, you can subscribe to the  RSS feed of all updates to the site in an RSS feed reader