[Marxism] Linux documentary "Revolution OS"

Ben C minnows at connexus.net.au
Thu Dec 9 22:11:47 MST 2004


A comrade took me along last night to a computer users' group (Melbourne 
PHP users) to see the documentary "Revolution OS". The doco explains the 
rise of the Free Software movement (that's free as in "freedom" not 
"free of charge") and the following "open source" software movement.

It's an interesting lesson in the behaviour of monopoly capitalism and 
the radical potential of science. I thought I'd share a rough synopsis 
and some thoughts.

The Free Software Foundation began in the 1980s with programmers who 
were sick of using expensive software that was protected by intellectual 
property rights, particularly using the UNIX operating system. These 
people designed their own operating system, known as GNU (a pun, acronym 
stands for "GNU is Not Unix"). The modern GNU systems use a Linux 
"Kernel" to hold the system together (the GNU/FSF people didn't get 
around to designing their own kernel in time, and a guy called Linus 
Torvalds beat them to it).

As researchers at places like MIT and Stanford, these people were 
frustrated with the proprietary systems (Unix, Solaris etc) that they 
couldn't afford to use at home. There's an interesting little section in 
the film where the young Bill Gates sends an angry letter to the 
programming community at MIT (I think) who had allegedly been using his 
BASIC programming language -- without paying for it!!! -- which nicely 
sums up the gulf between the programmers who developed modern computing
and the entrepreneurs who brought us white elephants like Windows.

Proprietary software (like Windows) is not (legally) modifiable. Even if 
you just want to tinker with it to make it work better for you, that's 
not allowed. To make an analogy, imagine if you bought a car and the 
manufacturer had a lock on the bonnet, and you couldn't even change the 
oil without purchasing the appropriate services from the manufacturer. 
That's Microsoft Windows.

So some radical scientists thought up the Free Software movement. The 
GNU licencing "copyleft" system means that users may modify and 
distribute their own versions of the code (as long as they also adhere 
to the GNU public licence).

As GNU systems became more and more effective (because hundreds of 
programmers were working on them) and especially after Linux became 
available, commercial opportunities opened up. Many of these programmers 
tried to build consulting companies (to distribute and maintain GNU 
systems).

Hence the "Open Source" movement. It was found that venture capitalists 
and businesses didn't like the sound of "Free Software" so "Open Source" 
was thought up, and a new "copyleft" drawn up - with much of the same 
characteristics as the GNU PUblic Licence.

At this point the anti-monopoly and communitarian FSF spirit is 
challenged by the anti-monopoly and business-oriented wing of the movement.

While there is no open schism outlined in the movie, it seems that the 
consulting firms have launched down a path towards integration with the 
Microsofts of the world. As companies like Microsoft release their own 
versions of Open Source (I forget what they called it) to combat the 
threat, the lines between blur.

The "VA Linux" consulting firm made an Initial Public Offer on the stock 
exchange and broke the record; a few years later its stock had slumped 
to a couple of dollars. The Open Source movement seems to have largely 
followed the pattern of technological innovation that's probably been 
predominant since the second world war: small engineering firms set out 
with new ideas to make their fortune, the monopolies watch to see which 
ones work well, and buy them out. There is still probably an ongoing 
niche for Open Source business, as the software is anti-monopoly and 
hence generally much cheaper, not to mention much more efficient. Many 
government institutions -- not just in Venezuela -- have turned to using 
Linux/GNU.

The Free Software movement contains much more radical ideas. Perhaps 
they ultimately go no further than anti-monopoly sentiment, but I think 
that's an underestimation. The founder of the FSF tends to 
anarchist/utopian ideas in his speeches about free software being 
oriented to community building not profit making. The whole movement was 
founded on opposition to intellectual property rights, and as such may 
not be politically revolutionary but certainly points to a revolution in 
methods of technological progress/process, which is held back by capitalism.

I think the radicalism of the FSF rests on a peculiarity of computer 
programming: it's just a series of code instructions. Any hacker with a 
cheap computer in their bedroom can participate in the movement. It's a 
bit harder to achieve that sort of participatory atmosphere in something 
like heavy engineering, genetic research or what have you due to the 
scale and cost of the physical equipment.

The question posed by the FSF founder is how can we use free software to 
build communities. Perhaps radicals also ought to consider how the 
strengths of the FSF in combating intellectual property rights can be 
learned from and applied to other areas - genetics, medicine, agriculture.

Ben C



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