A couple of disparate threads have bounced around in my head lately, which makes me think that there’s some fundamental notion at work in the world.
Mitchell Baker and Matthew Gertner have had a brief back and forth over the nature of a public good (such as the Firefox web browser in specific, or free software in general). Mitchell’s position is:
A people-centered Internet needs some way for people to interact with the Internet that isn’t all about making money for some company and its shareholders.
— Mitchell Baker, Firefox is a Public Asset
Matthew Gertner wonders if corporate backing is necessarily, in itself, inimical to the creation and community-based maintenance of such a public good:
This isn’t about a small group of people trying to get rich. It’s about putting into place the most efficient overarching structure to achieve our common goals of choice and innovation on the internet.
— Matthew Gertner, More on Mozilla and Capitalism
The other thread synchronous in time comes from a comment Tim O’Reilly made a week ago:
I will predict that virtually every open source company (including Red Hat) will eventually be acquired by a big proprietary software company.
— Tim O’Reilly at [08.02.07 11:47 AM] in Microsoft to Submit Shared Source Licenses to OSI
Sometimes I wonder if the fateful 1998 meeting which gave birth to the term “Open Source” led the world of software freedom down a dark path. If the only way to get business to adopt the idea of embracing the power of communities to build software and ecosystems larger, more powerful, and more efficient than individuals could build on their own was to focus on economic principles, rather than the notion of the public good, is it any wonder that so many businesses seem to be indifferent at best to the health of those public goods?
To switch rhetorical metaphors, do you find it more likely that any given business would invest N% of its budget in energy-saving measures because it considers the investment ethically right on its own merits, or because it saves money and provides the basis for a nice, friendly press release?
Perhaps it’s inevitable that community-driven development, maintenance, and support will reduce markets for proprietary software up and down all of the stacks. Perhaps the most successful projects will have the strong support of businesses.
Do you want to rely on their goodwill to allow you to use, study, and redistribute software as you see fit? Are you willing to take the risk that they will encourage a healthy commons which allows you to use your data as you see fit?
I’m not sure.
Updated on 2007-08-10; corrected misattribution of Matt Asay to Matthew Gertner