Another look at free software

I read this, “‘Software is meant to be free …” at Hackernoon and found it disappointingly lightweight. It talks of Stallman, thus the four freedoms and the GNU project and mentions Eric Raymond in passing as the man who coined the phrase Open Source rather than the author of the Cathedral & the Bazaar and Homesteading the Noosphere. He doesn’t mention Stallman’s attack on the concept/phrase of Open Source since he considered it a diminishing of the four freedoms. It’s weak on the evolution of copyleft; it doesn’t mention for instance, Laurence Lessig and the Creative Commons. Clary also fails to mention Torvalds, the man most associated with Linux, the prime example of Open Source Software, although the EU Commission discovered that the largest contributor to the open source code base was Sun Microsystems.

It is particularly weak in its view of how and why the proprietary software behemoths adopted Open Source. They did so primarily in areas where they were weak in market share and profitability and where their competitors were the inverse. IBM’s massive investment in Linux, much of it through its OEM agreement with Red Hat was designed to kill Sun MIcrosystem’s Solaris; it is arguable that they succeeded, although both I and Eric Raymond think it’s more complex than that, as provoked by him, I argue here.

Our understanding of the economics and sociology has moved on since then. Anne Barron in her 2013 paper, Free Software Production as Critical Social Practice which I should really re-read looks at both and earlier in the previous decade Simon Phipps articulated new sources of value and new contexts for open source software, both how free software created scarce markets, and that open source governance models equally created and constrained the value of its free product. I was lucky to be able to present his theories once or twice and I reported on one such presentation on this blog 10 years ago.

These papers and theories are somewhat aged certainly when one considers the speed of technology development but its possible that even older theories such as Marx’s Fragment on the Machine and more recent developments in conceiving of immaterial labour, and the enigma of software’s role in the means of production are all part of the questions that need to be answered to understand the economic role and governance of software.

It’s not that software wants to be free … it’s just looking like no matter what theories of price you adhere to, free is the right price.


See also Free, the right price for software and maybe Monopoly and prices, both by me on this blog, written in 2009 exploring the micro/meso-economic classical welfare theories as to why software should be free. …

Charging for Content? Why?

For proselytising organisations, there is a conflict of motives in getting their stuff out there and read, viewed or heard by those interested in what they have to say and either covering their costs or making money by charging for the content. Religious organisations, self-help organisations and political parties should prefer to make the material available, whereas private sector press organisations like Sky will prefer to maximise income.

Obviously, once the content has been digitised, the cost to duplicate is zero.[1]

Some self-help organisations are confused as to what their priority is, to spread the message or generate income.

[1]The cost to create is not zero, neither is the cost to consume even if the price is free. …

Without news rooms and journalists, we won’t get the news!

On my way to the Housing Fringe, I bumped into a Times journalist, who asked if I was attending their meeting, which was branded around one of their columns which I had not heard of, and was starring Peter Kellner, ex-political columnist and now star poller. I rather rudely said I hadn’t read the Times since it went behind a paywall neglecting to mention that I hadn’t been a fan before and I was challenged about how to pay for investigative journalism.

the wall at the end

While I could have carried on with my rudeness asking when the Times last broke an important story such as ‘Phone Hacking’ for instance,  I quoted the fact that 80% of the cost of newspapers is about paper, logistics and ink. This was denied. …

Free, the right price for software

Economic systems are about how to use scarce resources and the Price Mechanism is the way in which a optimal resource allocation occurs. Economists use a branch of theory called “Welfare Economics” to analyse and model the efficiency of the productive economy, and a theoretically maximally efficient set of states can be defined within a model, known as the Pareto-efficiency frontier. A perfectly competitive market meets the efficiency requirements, imperfect or distorted markets do not. Distortions can be caused by the existence of monopolistic markets, taxation, externalities or missing markets.

Traditional Welfare economics rarely considers how copyright and patent law create barriers to entry to markets and thus husband the growth of monopolistic markets, where supply is restricted and prices driven up. It needs to be born in mind that overpricing products such as software which are inputs to the economic process as well as output, means that some otherwise efficient goods will not be produced; they cost too much.

It should also be born in mind that the majority of the world’s software is not licensed or charged for, although much of this free to use software is not traded at all, remaining the proprietary goods of their owners who use them to produce other goods and/or services. Benkler in his book, “the Wealth of Networks”, suggests there are nine business models for pursuing value in software, of which only three of them involve trading rights i.e. charging for software. If there was no software copyright i.e. copying was legal and free the only price, software would still be written. The overpricing of software distorts both today’s market and the innovation creating tomorrow’s. The price mechanism should ensure that resources that are scarce and consumed should be payed for. Software is not scarce, although the people that write it and the machines that run it are. Resources such as software should be free.

This was meant to be an essay based on some slides I have been trailing inside the company, but I discovered how hard it is and how much time it takes to actually put ideas into essay form while preparing the paper behind what became Monopoly & Prices, see below. So this is more of an abstract, I shall upload the essay when finished to my personal site downloads page.

Thanks once again to Beggs, Fischer and Dornbusch, whose Economics 8th Edition reminded me of my Welfare Economics.


This is a reprint of an article originally published on my sun blog. It was copied to this site on 3rd August 2013. much earlier than most. …