Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Interesting ESR on RMS

Good article, ESR can be intelligent and insightful when he wants. Although he clearly can't help a bit of crowing at the end. The last points he tries to push seem to need some kind of response.

There are three parts to the branding issue : the name itself, the campaign tactics and the message (or moral vision) that goes with it. Stallman has been fairly explicit that the name "free software" is confusing. And that something else would probably be better. The tactics of OS might very well be more succesful, in that ESR worked well with O'Reilly and other industry representatives to push his line; although the main success of the OS camp was simply waiting around until Linus had written a kernel and put the last, crucial piece in the GNU jigsaw.

The real issue is the differing moral vision between both men. Both RMS and ESR are champions of extremely political / moral positions which are in conflict. RMS's is certainly anti-propertarian about information stuff. (Although, despite being on the left, he's explicit that he's not against some kind of property rights for scarce resources, nor commerce.) For Stallman code is a public good, produced collectively.

ESR's moral vision is anarcho-capitalist. It champions the virtues of property, and so whatever is going on in open source, it mustn't be seen as a denial of property. Instead it should be seen as a new kind of property, more suited to non-scarce resources. The best way of understanding this new kind of property is that it's a sort of reputation within the hacker community ("egoboo" is ESR's term)

How is the fight squaring off between these positions? Now that RMS has a new ally in Lawrence Lessig, the Stallman moral message against the enclosure of information stuff seems to be pretty strong. The new brand, "commons based peer production", (which stretches beyond software to all sorts of cultural artifacts) is anti-propertarian, stressing, as it does, the virtue of "the commons" and anti-individualism. Had this branding been Raymondite, it would have been something like "reputation based peer production", to stress the role of repuation-property.

The other great Stallman legacy is his understanding of law as a platform to be hacked. The GPL (Copyleft) is a monster hack, turning the legal infrastructure of intellectual property against enclosure. It's also the key tactical weapon of the Stallmanite tendency.

That weapon is still in major effect. With entirely copyleft versions of Linux now available. Of course, law always defines (co-creates) property. But Stallman turned the hacker community on to this particular platform. Today, it goes without comment that computer geeks should also be law-geeks. The ESRites have made their own attempts to promote alternatives to copyleft (though here they're just following the tradition of the Open Group and others who were resisting the copyleft revolution). But they certainly haven't supplanted this legacy.

Final point. Interestingly ESR says Stallman's greatest triumph is his code.

I haven't seen Stallman's code, and wouldn't be able to judge it if I had. But the greatest failure of the FSF was the absense of a kernel for GNU - which Linus had to supply. And arguably, the greatest intellectual contribution made by ESR to the movement is the cathedral vs. bazaar analysis : identifying Linus's decentralized, rapid-release model as the key to its success. Undoubtedly centralization on Stallman, and other possible bureaucracy explains the FSF's failures. But ESR doesn't mention these points because they don't fit the story he wants to tell : one which aims to debunk Stallman's moral vision.

But there's an alternative story to the one told by ESR, which might fit the facts better : that Stallman's moral vision has continued to attract and inspire millionswell maybe thousands of hackers, and under the new leadership of Lessig (an avowed Stallman fan) is pushing back against "intellectual property" all across the internet. While the role of Linus and ESR was crucially, to identify and explain a better operational model than that practiced by the FSF.

In this story, ESR's contrasting moral vision - of hackers as individualistic self-aggrandizers, battling for reputation property - is just irrelevant spinning. If ESR were right, and reputation was the crucial currency of the open economy, then you should expect that there'd be all sorts of ways that people would be using reputation tracking tools to improve the open development process. Source-forge would work like PopIdol, Technorati-style attention markets would be set up to stroke hackers into ever greater paroxysms of coding.

I didn't happen. Free software is produced for a whole variety of motivations : some idealistic, supporting Stallman's vision, some pragmatic. Some people want to scratch an itch, or to do something cool, some want to get famous within the hacker community. Just like the real economy or market, the free or open code market has a diversity of motivations. What enables this disperate group of interests to coordinate and thrive is not shared motivation, it's shared legal constitution : the software licenses. And particularly it's the looming presence of the GPL which helps idealists to protect their vision, and encourages pragmatists to join it.

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