Recently, I was directed toward an excellent analysis of commons-based peer production as a phenomenon which separates "entrepreneurs" (who want to get things done and create value in the world) from "capitalists" (who want to get a return on an investment of property without contributing any labor). An observer -- clearly outside of the community of free software developers -- expressed dismay at the example of Mozilla Foundation, which makes money from the open source Mozilla project, but does not pay for most voluntarily contributed code improvements to the Mozilla software. Is he right? Is this exploitation of those contributors?
My neighbor Jim is obsessed with vintage gasoline pumps. He collects them. He restores them. He named his dog Petro. He stores them in his garage, and under his carport. They are beautiful things, I must admit, all shiny and strangely elegant. And though he suffers from severe fibromyalgia, he spends much of his free time restoring rusted and neglected pumps to their original beauty.
I don’t know why he does it. Nobody claims he does it out of boredom, or that he’ll stop doing it because he isn’t getting paid. But I don’t know why he does it.
Neither do I know why I write free software. But I know it’s not from boredom.
Some prominent people have called free software “communist” in an attempt to bring Cold War bugaboos to bear against the movement—a kind of “nuclear option” of FUD. I remember the paranoia of the Cold War personally, and I thought then (and I still do now) that it was “just stupid”.
So rather than react as some have done with a knee-jerk “no it’s not!”, I propose to accept the label and see where that insight takes us. Maybe there is something communist about free software? I think we will see, however, that the idea behind free software is far more radical: no less “communist” than “capitalist”, but no more so, either.