posted by David Adams on Mon 16th Aug 2004 17:44 UTC
IconI read something in one of the comments for an OSNews posting a couple weeks ago that sent me thinking. It wasn't an original or profound thought. In fact, it's a rather commonly-held opinion that happens to be quite misguided. It's an opinion summed up by the "open source = communist" meme that gets thrown around in thousands of flamewars all over the internet. In this essay, I will explore why this idea is wrong and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of economics.

The following was posted in an OSNews discussion in July 2004:

I guess free software foundations are going to employ people from now on. Its the same evil mega corporations that employ hundreds of thousands of people and make the world economy function. Make them "smaller, weaker, and easier to keep in their place" and raise the unemployment rate to double digits not to mention lowering the standard of living world wide I suggest voting NO for RMS Democracy.

In other words, the money that is made and the jobs that are provided by the licensed software industry are an essential pillar of the economy, and any challenge to the status quo would have catastrophic effects. This misconception is actually rather easy to debunk, but it's related to a more serious notion that merits serious discussion: the idea that replacing the now-dominant intellectual property regime with one that favors, or even enforces, sharing rather than hoarding is a threat to the world's economic well-being.

An examination of the facts, put in historical perspective, shows that the engines of global progress have always been fed by the sharing of knowledge. In fact, if knowledge about, say, new agricultural techniques, like irrigation, had been hoarded and protected from competition, it would have set back the rise of civilization by centuries. It was precisely because early pioneers shared their knowledge (willingly or not) that the march of progress led steadily on.

This sharing was, in earlier times, unavoidable to some extent. Early innovators would certainly have been eager to maintain profitable monopolies on their ideas if there had been a mechanism to allow it. But the invisible hand of the free market applies a constant, inescapable pressure on idea-hoarding. In fact, the right to compete by producing a similar or identical product to another is one of the cornerstones of capitalism. Copyright and other protections of intellectual property are actually anti-liberty, anti-capitalist notions, though all but the most radical libertarians would recognize that measured protections are essential to promoting economic progress.

As in all things, what's good in moderation can be harmful in large doses (or if withheld altogether), and overzealous protection of intellectual property stifles innovation in the long run. In an ironic twist, there is a type of economic system in which an organization is granted a right to be the sole producer of a particular good, protected from competition. That's the "planned economy" model embraced by Soviet Communism.

Table of contents
  1. "Section 1"
  2. "Section 2"
  3. "Section 3"
  4. "Section 4"
  5. "Section 5"
  6. "Section 6"
  7. "Section 7"
  8. "Section 8"
  9. "Section 9"
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