Can a Public Good Survive Corporate Interest?

by chromatic

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


2007-08-10 06:54:01
Hmmm. I think you take from a slant that is too narrow. Based on your article the impression is that the only good is that which is socialist and activist in origin. Or at least that is how I read it. Second, which is part of the first, appears to be the perception that anything corporate is bad.

Observation One: Commons do not have to be Commons from the ground up. Not so. There are plenty of Commons that using corporate tools and assets accomplish their mission quite well thank you.

Observation Two: Corporate possession is bad. Again not so. In fact if you look at the vast majority of open source projects of any note they all have 'in being' a corporate form as either a corporation or foundation. Both structured business entities. They do so for the protection of the participants and the board.

Observation Three: Open Source will be gobbled up by business interests. Here I would hazard, yes in some cases. But the smart companies don't. They gobble up the people so as to tap into the same mind that made the OS product successful in their own products. But consider, Linus godfather to it all, pretty much did it for the FUN of it. Which pretty much led to its success. If one is doing the Commons or Open Source for any activist ponderings, sorry that is as bad as the grasp for money.

Consider Red Hat. Corporate to the core yet has a successful cross relationship with its brother Fedora. Each contributing to the other as it's skills dictate. This in my mind is the Commons-Corporate partnership that will dictate software development's future. Most developers loathe the maintenance. Most corporate entities want their hands held as far as products go. So an entity like Red Hat provides the support for a fee that corporate users want while freeing the creative side to do what they want to do best.

Observation Four: Success requires support. Not every user out there is born with the brains to fix code. They want to use the tool, it solves a problem for them. But being a software mechanic is not their forte. To fill that gap some entity must be around to provide that service. Most likely it is going to be a fee service. If OS is going to break out into the mainstream it is going to require that kind of support structure.

Personally I don't think it is as dire as you paint it. Remember that at its heart OS is people. Its not the code that is subsumed it is the people behind it. If you do OS for the fun of it, the money does not matter and you don't get tempted to the 'dark side'. If there is such a thing.

Matt Gertner
2007-08-10 07:28:44
At the risk of seeming churlish, my name is Matt Gertner. Not sure how you got the idea that my posts were written by someone else.
2007-08-10 10:06:19
@Matt, you're absolutely correct. I have no idea what I was thinking, and I've just updated the post appropriately. I apologize, and I appreciate the correction!