Free Software and Socialism

April 1, 2007

The law treats physical property and intellectual property (IP), much the same despite the fact that IP requires practically no labour to reproduce and does not spoil or wear out. The primary purpose of laws preventing people from copying music, software, literature, and other information, then, is to effect an artificial scarcity which helps secure profits for IP owners.

Independent software developers, angry with the restrictions imposed by commercial IP owners, began to voluntarily license their software copyrights under terms which guaranteed that the software would always be free for others to use, study, copy, and modify. Since most new software is created by refining and combining existing pieces of software, this licensing scheme essentially returned control of the means of production of software to the community.

The Free Software licensing scheme has since been popularised and adapted to other forms of IP, most notably artwork and literature. A case in point is Wikipedia, a large online encyclopaedia which is collaboratively edited by thousands of volunteers from all over the world. The facts that editors contribute voluntarily and without compensation, and that the project operates in a largely democratic fashion without a government, serve to refute the common anti-socialist argument that people will not work and cooperate without coercion. Though Wikipedia and other free content projects are not socialism, they are illustrative of how certain aspects of socialism could operate. If the artificial scarcity capitalism imposes on physical resources were abolished, as free licensing has done with certain informational resources, then what would be left to stop us from running the whole world through voluntary labour and free access?

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