Is Free Software Derivative?

by on June 18, 2007 · 0 comments

Nick Carr has a lengthy article on the pros and cons of peer production. To some extent, it’s hard to quibble with his basic point that peer production is useful but not a panacea. Clearly, peer production doesn’t work for every project, and it will always rely on a core group of dedicated individuals who do a lot of the work.

But what I found striking about the article is that it spends a lot of time asserting that peer-produced products have problems, but Carr provides hardly any examples. Below the fold, I’ll look at one of the few specific criticisms of free software, which I find to be seriously misguided.

But even as the corporate world has begun to embrace the idea of the bazaar as a forum for innovation, software programmers have continued to debate the strengths and weaknesses of peer production. The open source model has proven to be an extraordinarily powerful way to refine programs that already exist — Linux, for instance, is an elaboration of the venerable Unix operating system, and the open source Firefox browser builds on Netscape’s old Navigator — but it has proven less successful at creating exciting new programs from scratch. That fact has led some to conclude that peer production is best viewed as a means for refining the old rather than inventing the new; that it’s an optimization model more than an invention model.

This just left me scratching my head. Yes, Firefox and Linux are based on Netscape and Unix, respectively. But Netscape and Internet Explorer are both based on Mosaic, which was developed by a government-funed university research center. And most current proprietary operating systems—Solaris, Mac OS X, HP-UX, AIX—are also based on Unix. So if the origins of Firefox and Linux proves that free software is derivative, doesn’t the origin of Netscape, IE, Mac OS X, and Solaris prove that most proprietary software is also derivative?

There are lots of examples of ground-breaking free software. Apache wasn’t the first web server, but it preceded most of the proprietary servers now on the market, and it’s been the market leader almost from its introduction. Perl, Python, PHP, BitTorrent, and SendMail are a few examples off the top of my head of free software programs that aren’t clones of proprietary protocols. And on the flip side, a lot of Microsoft software is derivative. For example, Excel, Word, Windows, IIS, and SQL Server were all late-comers to markets that had been pioneered by other companies.

The reality is that really groundbreaking software ideas—word processors, spreadsheets, the web—are extremely rare, and they’re usually the work of a single smart individual. Whether that individual chooses to commercialize his idea or license it as free software is up to the whim of that individual. The vast majority of software development, on the other hand, involves making incremental improvements to existing software products and concepts. As far as I can see, that’s equally true whether you’re talking about free software or proprietary software.

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