Free software and capitalism

by Sebastian Benthall

As the global capitalist economy tanks, and as I attend a free software conference, my mind alights on the subject of the role of free software in global capitalism.

My verdict: it is a radical departure.

Capitalism is an economic system whose foundation is the private ownership of the means of production.  Software is, among other things, a means of production.  Free software is not privately owned.*  So each successful free software project shifts the foundation of the economy towards…something else.

But what?

As Arnulf Christl has exhorted throughout the conference, the opposite of free software is proprietary software, not commercial software.  The proliferation of open source software has brought with it an open source industry that operates in the market just like other industries.

I’m certainly not the first to say this, but it seems high time for an economic theory that takes intellectual goods, and their tendency towards freedom, as fundamental instead of grafting them onto theories about trade in “normal,” material commodities.

* pace, licensing quibblers.