For a long time, debates have ranged between capitalism and socialism, each side staunchly embracing their ideology and demonizing the other. This scene is played out in American politics, with conservatives and libertarians arguing for freer markets and smaller government, while liberals and democrats focus on equal rights, quality of life, and democracy.
We can have both. There are countries in Europe whose social programs are executed better than they are in the United States. Education and medicine are often free. In America, moves to improve the situation for the lower class are often met with derision as “socialist” and “redistribution of wealth”. But the issue goes much deeper than that.
Often, the issue is not simply socialism vs capitalism, but it is between open and free information vs. proprietary information controlled by a business entity. Ironically, modern capitalism relies on government policing and enforcement of monopolies in the form of copyright and patent licensing. The same people, who talk about reducing government intervention and promoting individual liberty through free market capitalism, find it necessary to have the government step in and help crack down on copyright and patent infringements. The RIAA is complaining about declining revenues and prices for music becoming lower. The truth is, whether it’s labor unions or the RIAA, monopolies allow the incumbents to try and hold on to the status quo, to keep the keep the cost of entry high for little guys, and to keep the prices high. While those who dislike socialism in all its forms might decry government protection for labor unions, they would usually take the opposite stance on copyright issues.
When copyrights and patents get involved, things can get pretty ridiculous. Eolas patented “active content” in browsers. Amazon patented “one-click” purchasing. Patents threatened de facto standards like GIF and HTML5 video. Paul Allen’s lawuit against a large portion of the web is completely, or at least close to completely, legal and intended by the Patent system, which grants 17-year monopolies: the ideas were non-obvious and useful in when they were patented, but does that mean the entire industry now has to pay a royalty to the guy who filed a patent? The British government passed a law censoring and disconnecting households and businesses from the internet without the usual machinations of due process.The US government is poised to pass the COICA bill which would allow the government to control the DNS system and essentially shut off suspected copyright infringers from the internet. When it comes to internet technology, it is a challenge for lawmakers to keep up with the times. Is government-enforced monopoly a bad idea in principle, because it contradicts individual liberty and prevents competition?
In the software world, we have seen that open source has been a powerful force and accomplished many good things. Proprietary software is starting to look outdated (compare IE to the other browsers). Because of that fateful decision by Netscape to release their code as free software, forming the Mozilla corporation, we all benefit. Firefox and WebKit are products of open source software. Business like Apple and Google benefit from this, too. They can’t make money on selling the browser, but new markets have been created in their economic sector, and their relevance is continuing, whereas Microsoft — which did not embrace open source software — is becoming less relevant.
Open Source did not have to be a communist-run government effort. It happened because of dedicated, thoughtful people who changed the world. They did it not by taking away the freedom of businesses to conduct business, but by building an alternative ecosystem, which is now thriving in ways which do not rely on hiding information and prosecuting those who would share it.
Can we apply the same principles to other industries: drugs, books, movies, songs, etc? Perhaps. There have been efforts to make “open source” licenses for patents similar to the GNU license in copyrights. (Personally, I think they are a little too strong. A patent license would be analogous to a GNU license if it required the user of the patent to cause all their patents which are derived from the used patent or used in conjunction with it by the actual business to be shared under the same license — that is something that can be proven in court anyway.)
Basically, the system would provide an alternative to the proprietary system we have now, which encourages innovation through promises of possible great riches. There has been a lot of new science and economics focused on what motivates people, and there is a great video that shows we are motivated by more than that:
Lots of smart people are motivated by accomplishment. That is a huge force in economics, and if we are able to nurture it and build up a supportive culture around it, together with its own values and focus on improving the world, we can harness it to produce new innovation in the world more cheaply and effectively. The Free Software movement was modeled on the activities of scientific researchers. Many of them have gone into academia because they were driven by passion for the work they did in their field, not by the promise of riches. Once the basic money is out of the way — with a large margin for comfort (3x-4x your living expenses), smart people are driven by making a difference in the world. Patents don’t factor in. Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, said his sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as rapidly as possible, with no interest in personal profit. When he was asked in a televised interview who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
So what would an alternative system look like? It would be funded by people (“walkathon to find the cure for X”) and later, by corporations (similar to Google and Apple who contribute open source foundations). The breakthroughs, innovations, and ideas would be protected by copyleft licenses and patentleft licenses. The open source industries will probably produce better and better utilitarian products (drugs, wikipedias, etc.). Eventually, people would be able to base their purchasing decisions on publicly available information from the industry itself, instead of annoying advertisements (“ask your doctor about X”). Because the passion and goodwill of the innovators is being leveraged, R&D would be much cheaper. Because people would be able to freely build on the work of others, wherever it may have been done, lots of beneficial derivative products will arise, which may prove useful in the near future when drugs might become customize to individual genomes, body chemistry, etc. Distribution networks (think Apple’s iphone store, or Netflix, but for other industries) will compete on accessibility, richness of selection, etc. and will themselves probably contribute to the open source industries. The distribution networks will have to be regulated similar to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to ensure minimum safety and usability for the public.
When it comes to art, however, works produce by an open-source community, through lots of little contributions, might be too utilitarian for our tastes. As a society, we have always had heroes in art — famous writers, playwrights, composers, directors, painters, and so forth. It’s true, you won’t find famous heroes on Wikipedia (unless you look at the revision history, you won’t even know who the authors are). That’s what the creative commons licenses are for. For example, if you copy someone’s work, you have to leave the attribution to the original author. This works well for works of art with one author, but what about community open source projects, where there are many authors? Well, Rasmus Lerdorf, John Resig, and Guido von Rossum are all heroes for starting and heading up development of their own programming languages. Recognition is something that you don’t need to enforce on everyone. I don’t even need to credit Rasmus when using PHP. It’s common knowledge.
So I believe that the future holds some exciting promise: open source industries will arise in various disciplines. In everything except art which needs heroes, free information can bring much more to humanity than proprietary information protected by government-granted monopolies, because it has the potential to stimulate and harness people’s untapped passions and motivations, without the considerations of monetary profit. (For example, if finding a cure for the disease is far less lucrative than research of a way to simply manage the disease indefinitely, the open source community would still have many people going for the cure, because there is no conflict of interest. They don’t have to recoup the 700 million dollars spent by their company on amassing proprietary information, that cost has been amortized across the whole industry.) The open source solutions may eventually surpass the proprietary ones, which may seem outdated (as IE is today). If the result would be anything it is like in the software industry, would be a good world for all of us. As for art, I think there will also be a mix of community-created books, plays, songs, etc. But we will still need heroes, and that will happen through how the projects are set up. But, for things like movies and TV shows, we are still going to have to use the same actors throughout the whole movies — and that means the movies probably won’t be made using open source. Luckily, there are movie theaters.