posted by David Adams on Mon 16th Aug 2004 17:44 UTC

"Section 3"
The software industry actually has experienced unending class struggle just as world politics has. it's a struggle between the scientific/intellectual class that produces most of the world's software and the financial/managerial class that runs most of the companies that fund, market, and sell much of the world's software.

Software producers generally believe in an academic-inspired ideal that ideas are best cultivated in an open environment with peer-review and researchers "standing on the shoulders of giants" by learning about and improving upon others' ideas. More knowledge and better technology are the goal, and this goal is achieved by advancing the state of the art. They have their own strict protections of intellectual property, mostly involving a policy of never taking credit for work that isn't yours by meticulously attributing all of your sources.

The financial/managerial class has its own value system, based mostly on the necessity to monetize the company's assets. Firms have a responsibility to maximize the return on their investors' money, so every company asset must be leveraged to its utmost. This means that if you have developed a program that can be sold for $1,000,000 to four people in the world or $100 to three million people, it is your solemn duty to keep the price at $1,000,000, even if that means that 2,999,996 people who need that software will have to go without. And at that price, you must keep your company knowledge absolutely secret, advancing the state of the art be damned.

Often these conflicts do not bump up against each other too much. The software producers need an environment in which they can create software (they need to be paid, be provided with desks, computers, etc) and the managers need the producers to have a product to sell. It's a symbiotic relationship. But engineers often bristle at management's lack of interest in funding inventive new research and instead packing useless bells and whistles into the existing products because sales and marketing think it will help make more money. And managers often decry programmers' love of technology for technology's sake and seeming lack of interest in the financial well-being of the firm.

Members of the scientific/intellectual class looking in from the outside have historically been disappointed that so much of the fruits of the labors of the engineers working within industry have been locked away from them. Either they can't even afford to use the software because its licencing fees are so high, or if they can use it, they can only participate as an outsider because the intellectual property is guarded so carefully. If you've got some great ideas on how to make Microsoft Word better, you don't have much recourse other than penning a letter to the product manager at Microsoft.

Unless, of course, you'd like to take a crack at writing your own word processor. And that is exactly what many of those disenfranchised members of the scientific/intellectual class did.

As an example, AT&T, due in part to its status as a regulated monopoly, was quite generous in letting people use Unix, and it inspired a lot of smart people to advance the state of the art. But the Unix OS and the proprietary utilities it needed to be useful were owned by corporations, and while it's one thing to let academics use it, it would have been reckless to let them make new, commercially viable versions, especially if those versions were clearly better than the original. Shut down on that front, some intrepid programmers decided to re-write these utilities, and eventually the whole OS, from scratch. There were even competing versions of the re-writes, and camps formed around which was better. Over the years, others improved upon those re-writes, sometimes forking off into new projects. So in a way, the principles of the free market were applied to the production of a single piece of software, not just to sales and distribution of similar products.

How was it possible for these programmers to build upon each other's work, to fork off competing versions, and pursue diverging philosophies of development? It was done using a tool that had been invented by the financial/managerial class: intellectual property licensing. But the licenses that these people used were different. Their aim wasn't to monetize the software, but to strike a balance between enforcing the original author's rights while encouraging an academic, collaborative sharing of knowledge. That original author might want only to be recognized for his or her work, or might want to require that derivative works must also be released under an equally open license.

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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