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Opinion: Is free software communist?

February 11, 2000
Web posted at: 8:35 a.m. EST (1335 GMT)

by J.S. Kelly


(IDG) -- Those who try to compare free software to communism have it backwards. In fact, I'd say that proprietary software is much more like communism than free software is, because the two share the concept of strong, top-down central planning.

While I am confident that communists and proprietary software companies alike attempt -- at least a little -- to anticipate and satisfy the needs of most of the people most of the time, the fact is that this is plainly impossible.

Neither a five-year plan nor a software roadmap can anticipate the needs of very many of the people very much of the time. Go figure -- people are unpredictable.

The kind of thinking that leads a bureaucrat in the central committee of the Communist Party to decide that half a kilogram of spaghetti would be enough to last a person a year is the same kind of thinking that leads a technocrat in the steering committee of a proprietary software company to decide that 640 KB should be enough for anybody.

That infamous assertion is often attributed to Bill Gates, although to be fair he claims he never made it. But wouldn't you deny it too, if you had been the one to say it?

And besides, whether it (or the spaghetti thing) was ever said out loud, both limits were imposed on the public as a result of poor central planning that could not be easily undone. The former assumption led to a spaghetti shortage throughout the Soviet bloc in the 1980s, while the latter led to an artificially limited capacity in personal computing systems for millions of people throughout much of that same decade.

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Communism was famous for its shortages, long bread lines, and empty shops. Just as real a side effect of communism, though a less famous one, were nonsensical surpluses which went along with the shortages. In other words, central planning is hopelessly inefficient.

And if central planning could not help communist leaders centrally manage the supply of mundane commodities like meat and eggs, it is even less likely to help proprietary software companies manage the design of their products in the fast-moving world of high tech.

A free market or a free software development model can keep up with these changes. Central planning cannot.

Intellectual property is different

It can be difficult to see, at first, how and why a distributed development model is better, because, as Americans, we are indoctrinated at an early age into thinking that the ideal model for production is a large, centralized company or factory. Such institutions can practice efficiencies of scale which make them function more effectively, more economically, and more profitably.

Of course, this idea does hold true for mass-produced manufactured goods. But when it is applied to the realm of intellectual property -- like software, music, writing, or business plans -- the idea no longer holds, because the rules of intellectual property do not follow the rules of real property. (This has been pointed out by others; please see the Resources section below for links to similar discussions.)

When you are manufacturing cars, it costs just as much to produce one as it does to produce the next; producing two costs exactly twice as much as producing one. Efficiencies are introduced only in mass production. But software is different: computer programmers do not sit on an assembly line, with one programmer placing all the #includes into each program as it travels down a conveyer belt.

With intellectual property, it is vastly more complex (and thus expensive) to produce to first unit than it is to produce any subsequent unit. Once you're gone through the trouble of coding your program, it is relatively trivial to copy it, just as it is easier to learn a song than it is to write it, easier to photocopy a magazine article than research it -- and easier to imitate an Internet-based online auction business than it is to come up with the idea yourself.

Once intellectual property is created, it's dead easy to replicate. It was easy to replicate and ship intellectual property in the days before the Internet; and it is much easier now that you can download electronic books, digitized music, software, and other intellectual property from the comfort of your own home or office.

Meanwhile, automobiles, eggs, clothes, and other real goods still need to be delivered the old-fashioned way -- by train, boat, or -- most likely, at least in the United States -- by truck.

Are we being railroaded by proprietary software?

It has always seemed illogical to me that trucks would be preferable to use for cross-country deliveries than rail lines. But even in countries that do have a very good railway infrastructure (which we don't), or which do not have subsidized gasoline (which we do), the automobile or truck is often the transportation of choice for individuals and businesses alike.

Just like the personal automobile, free software really does allow you to go where you want to go today -- leaving when you want to leave, and making as many stops or detours along the route as you might like. You may choose the well-traveled highway, the lesser-traveled byways, or even the most rugged terrain -- territory where railway lines have never been laid.

It's funny, but this is not the first time that proprietary software companies have reminded me of the railroads.

When the railroads were first laid, they made a few individuals fabulously wealthy -- just as proprietary software does today. And if you think that the competition between rival software companies today is fierce, and that the tactics they use against their competitors are questionable -- rest assured they are nothing compared to what the early railroad companies did to each other.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather fund the development of the open road than contribute to the centrally planned bloat of the modern-day robber barons.

Of course, that's just one person's opinion -- I'm sure you have your own, and I'd love to hear it. Really, I would!

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External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

GNU Project/Free Software Foundation
"640K should be enough for anybody," Lion Templin (March 1999)
Bill Gates claims, "I never said that '640K should be enough for anybody'"
(from the Urban Legends Web site)
"Why Software Should Not Have Owners," Richard Stallman (1994)
"Why Content Isn't King," David Birch (News Unlimited, February 2000)
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