Richard Epstein has an absolutely terrible column in the October 21 Financial Times: Why open source is unsustainable. Epstein begins with the oh-so-original observation that
Intellectual property often creates strange bedfellows on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum.
Left and right may not be the proper characterizations for those referred to, and the alliance isn’t at all strange — it reoccurs often when personal freedom, civil liberty, what have you is threatened. The war on drugs and war in general are two prime threats that motivate reasonable people to become “strange bedfellows.” Open source is perhaps slightly odd in that it is a uniting opportunity, rather than a threat.
On the left, many socialists oppose private property in all its forms.
Many? Possibly some Maoists or similar retreads, but then I’m not very familiar with hard core communist ideology, and those types aren’t very common these days. As far as I know most syndicalists or anti-market anarchists admit to some personal property. Run of the mill socialists certainly do not oppose private property in all its forms.
On the right, some libertarians, such as Tom Bell of Chapman Law School,
are deeply suspicious of the use of intellectual property to block the right of other individuals to think and speak as they choose. While they regard private property as acceptable for physical resources that cannot be used by everyone at once, they draw the line at intellectual property, which can be copied at close to zero cost.
Amazing common sense. Intellectual property (I prefer one of “intangible goods” or “intellectual protectionism”) is a taking of the rights of owners of tangible property, who are denied any use of their real property that infringes on the rights of IP owners.
All this anti-IP rhetoric begs one question: how do we produce IP in the first place?
A question sidestepped by Epstein for the remainder of the article. Aside: perhaps any issue that demands (or rather, for which some demand) government attention in some form — regulation, subsidy, prohibition, etc. — can be thought of as a public goods problem. However, just because something is a public good doesn’t mean that it is not also a private good — production of open source software being just one example. Lynne Kiesling has some musings along these lines, starting with electricity network reliability.
The middle part of Epstein’s column is a morass of classic fear, uncertainty, and doubt regarding open source software, all terribly uninformed. A few counters:
- Open source does produce excellent non-server software. If you aren’t reading this in Mozilla Firefox chances are you’re missing out big time. Also see OpenOffice, the GIMP, the GNOME Desktop, Inkscape, Scribus, Eclipse and many more.
- Individual hackers have been and always will be incredibly important and productive in ways Epstein and DeLong probably just don’t get, but open source is now integral to many of the largest for-profit software concerns (e.g., IBM and Oracle) and software consumers (e.g., Wall Street).
- Even if they did hold water, a serious anti-open source commentator would not use anti-GPL arguments as the linchpin of their anti-open source argument. Three open source applications stand above all others in terms of market share: BIND, Sendmail, and Apache . None of these are GPL’d.
This quote from Epstein is good for a chuckle:
But how do the insiders, such as Linus Torvalds, cash out of the business that they built? And in the interim, how do they attract capital and personnel needed to expand the business? Traditional companies have evolved their capital structures for good reason.
Torvalds didn’t build a business, not that we have to worry about him eating. Rather than speculating in the abstract, Epstein should study how successful open source companies have actually expanded their businesses. And how and why traditional companies have seen it in their best interest to pay developers to work on open source.
So what does Epstein really want? That comes at the very end of his column:
But suppose this analysis is wrong. One clear policy implication remains: this novel form of business association should succeed or fail on its own merits. The do-or-die question is whether open source offers a low cost solution to particular problems. Ordinary companies will make just those calculations, but government agencies may be swayed to take a different tack, as has been suggested by a number of EU studies. That temptation should be avoided. Governments are bad at forcing technology by playing favourites. If open source is less effective than proprietary software, that gap should not be ignored by positing some positive network externalities that come from giving it a larger base. Proprietary systems also show positive network effects from increased users, as software designers are always attracted by a larger installed base. It’s a tough world out there, in which no one should be exempted from the general competitive pressures of the marketplace. The fiduciary duties of government to all citizens demand no less.
I love Epstein’s subtle abuse of the word implication.
I strongly agree that government is terrible at picking technology winners. That’s why I’ll probably vote against California’s stem cell research bond, despite being strongly in favor of any and all uses of fetal stem cells.
However, to the extent government is a technology consumer, it ought to be an intelligent consumer. Julian Sanchez made an excellent argument for open source in government — especially in government — two years ago in a column titled Open Source and Its Enemies:
With proprietary software, government’s potentially standard-setting procurement choices give it the role of market kingmaker.
A certain recipe for inefficient rent seeking behavior.