Linux, Wikipedia and Karl Marx

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber points to this paper by Dan Hunter at Wharton on the open source movement. (The comments to Farrell’s post are worth considering as well.)

Hunter sees in the open source movement the specter of Karl Marx.

“[M]uch of copyright and patent has come under attack from those who suggest that capture by private interests has had a pernicious influence on public policy. In the related areas of telecommunication spectrum management and internet regulation there have emerged strong arguments for not allocating private property interests, and instead considering these domains as commons property. I suggest that, together, these developments form part of a culture war, a war over the means of production of creative content in our society. I argue that the best way to understand this war is to view it as a Marxist struggle. However, I suggest that copyright and patent reform – where commentators have actually been accused of Marxism – is not where the Marxist revolution is taking place. Instead I locate that revolution elsewhere, most notably in the rise of open source production and dissemination of cultural content.”

Hunter is not the only one who sees a different mode of production based on a type of common property. Of course, it does help that software, unlike say oil or land, is not exhausted in its use and for which consumption is not rival (my use of the good doesn’t come at the expense of your use). In effect, software is sort of “super-abundant”.

I’m not sure how useful Marxism is here. Copyright has always posed a problem for Marxian theory. As a product of law, copyright is a superstructural effect that is determined by the forces of production (and the imperative of its development). The problem is that for intellectual property, copyright enables its development by provding an incentive to develop (the development comes at the expense of optimal use). Developers can capture much if the value of their intellectual effort. The law, part of the “superstructure”, to use Marxian terminology, determines part of the “base”, the productive force, and does not merely stabilize it. The “effective power” over the property here is produced by law, and not vice versa.

But something is clearly going on. There are nearly 4,000 free software programs (some very sophisticated at that) at gnu alone, all of which have been copylefted. (See also Brad de Long and Michael Froomkin’s thoughts on open source in this paper.)

What motivates people to provide these goods is a huge question. Of course, between state and market are a host of social formations with complex incentive structures–family, community and even the individual with his/her own psychic gratification in producing things, to take three. Economics is trying hard to integrate the phenomenon and answer the question. Those interested can find possible answers here, here, here, here and here.