Open Sourcing: Good, Bad, or inevitable

There’s an outstanding discussion about open sourcing here.

And it got me thinking:

Is the future collaborative or competetive?

More specifically: Will we continue to view our creations as just another form of capital?  Does the open sourcing mentality feed into the good things about capitalism?  Or does it cut these ideas off at the knees?

I probably don’t understand enough about the paradigm shifts that are currently going on to be able to answer these questions with any authority.  But here’s my initial thoughts:

Traditionally, we have looked at creations in a certain manner.  We’ve lumped together a wide variety of creations together in terms of how we treat them.

Roughly speaking, an inventor gets a several year head start.  A creation isn’t allowed to be co-opted by others for varying numbers of years.

If I write a novel I own it.  It’s my property.  If it’s been written any time recently and you try to publish it and make money off it with out my permission than I get to sue you and get most of the money you made off of it.

At some point, this product enters the public domain.  I don’t own it anymore.  Then anybody can publish it.  (Consider, for example, a Stephen King novel.  If I photocopied his latest novel and tried to sell it I would be in big trouble.  Shakespeare or the King James translation of the Bible are public domain and can be published by anybody.)

To the best of my understanding, medicines are pretty similiar.  The time scale is shrunk considerably.  But it’s the same idea: the company that invents a new drug gets exclusive rights to it for the first several years.  At some point, the generics are allowed to step in and compete.

There are problems with this system.  (For example, the fact that some life-saving drugs are not available quickly and cheaply to the third world is nothing short of evil.)  But over all, it seems to be pretty effective.  The two things that we need to balance are consumer’s rights and inentor’s rights.  If it becomes too easy to mass produce something a person worked hard for, then we have just killed the impetus to innovate.  If it became too hard to mass produce new ideas, then we have just killed the possibility of competetion.

In other words, as much as I might wish that a certain medication was cheaper for my family, or for a family in the third world, if companies were required to sell drugs just above the actual physical cost of making the medication, then they would not be able to fund the support network required to make modern pharmecology happen.   If a company can’t tack on extra money to the medications, then how do we pay the salaries of the reps. that sell the meds, or the researchers who developed them in the first place?

There seems to be no way around the fact that the more skilled a person is the more he will command in terms of a salary.  (Perhaps it’s a bit more elaborate than that: the skills need to be in an area where there is a demand, of course.)  Therefore, the organizations that figure out how to make the most profit will be able to attract the most talent.  (All other things being equal, of course.)

Perhaps the revolution of open source is in the realization that the most profit doesn’t necessarily come from the best corporate warrior.  In addition to squashing the competetion, a company might mantain an edge by fostering cooperation.

Nonetheless, so long as we operate under a capitalist system, it’s hard to imagine how the corporations won’t syphon off the best and the brightest.  And it’s further reasonable for these corporations to see a profit in doing so.

As individuals create, it seems like they have a right to reap the benefits of their creations.  Is their a way to balance the innovations that benefit all of us that might result from improvements on these creations with the right of the creator to benefit?

If I create an original song, computer program, or head ache remedy, I deserve to be rewarded for this.  My creation should certainly be protected from out-and-out piracy.  But where is the line between piracy and improvement?  Did Vanilla Ice improve that amazing “Under Pressure” Riff or did he pirate it in “Ice-Ice Baby?”  If you make my medication or computer program a little bit more effective, do you have the right to do so and then market your improvements right after my creation?  If so, how do we stop corporate juggernauts from making cosmetic changes to mom-and-pop operations and then driving them out of business through superior experience and financial clout?

Perhaps the morality is irrelevant.  Perhaps this train won’t stop whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing.  Perhaps all we can do is just try to do is handle these events as best we can. 

I suppose there is a good side to this.  It’s not hard to envision large groups of non-incorporated people both serving as a check on the power of the corporations but also working supportively to those corporations and professionals which take care of them.   Perhaps it’ll be a bit like the relationship between amateur and professional astronomers over the last couple hundred years, where the amateurs supplemented the professionals’ data and observations.

This stuff is all in it’s infancy.  And I’m a bit out of my element in these assumptions.  What do you think?


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

3 thoughts on “Open Sourcing: Good, Bad, or inevitable”

  1. i just finished pouring over “The New Age 1-4” on Marty’s blog. i must confess that i sense there’s a few things i’m not comprehending about the functionality of “open sourcing”.

    i do understand the bulk of the philosophical and ideological concepts, but there’s a bit of a disconnect for me when it comes to application.

    The other day i had a discussion with a friend who has grown disillusioned by the Mary Kay scheme. Our talk dovetailed into the AmWay argument and ultimately landed us both firmly distraught over the way these organizations take advantage of people and Christians specifically.

    It isn’t that their systems are necessarily flawed as a way of making and distributing money, what’s immoral about them is that they engage in half-truth economics in order to play on the ignorance of most people. And worse than that, the ‘pitch’ appeals to a part of our psychy and spirit that is constantly prone to uncertaintly about the future.

    Where these two systems in particular fail to meet the economic smell test is here: neither actually take into account the production leg of the wealth cycle, and they falsely propogate the notion that everyone can be wealthy (ANYBODY can be wealthy, but EVERYBODY can not).

    My instinct tells me that the first of these two failures is where ‘open-sourcing’ might have it’s problems. Information is great, but putting it into production is something that requires engaging a system rooted in the trade of commodities.

    Eat, sleep, and transport.
    If it doesn’t ultimately result in one of these three, it won’t stand on its own.


  2. Thanks, Garret.
    I think some of the folks involved in this discussion would say that the assumptions that both you and I are making are rooted in viewing our economy as industrial, not post-industrial. There are people who say that what will happen is that the developing world will take on an increasing load of the production of goods and the “first world” will increasingly shift it’s emphasis to an economy where the primary commodity is information.
    I’m not sure that those people are right. You indicated this in your post: it seems unlikely that an economy could be rooted in a commodity which we can’t eat.

    I think you’re a exactly right about the Mary Kay/Amway phenemonon. They ultimately aren’t much different than the pyramid schemes of the 70’s where you were supposed to send a dollar to the person who hooked you into the scheme. This bought you the right to hook numerous others into the scheme.

    My sense of the open sourcing idea is that it’s a bit more utopian and little less capiitalistic. This is not to say that it will work. But I think the ideal is that the creation of things becomes participatory. It’s most specifically around computer applications. The short-term ideal is, I think, that consumers get the ability to modify and improve store-bought products. The long term ideal is that most of the applications we use become communally created.
    It’s hard for me to imagine what motivates people to invest hundreds of hours into modifying and creating new products as I can’t quite see how the creators will be paid for their labor, and I’m not sure it’s fair to the originators of the material that everybody wants to have the right to modify.


  3. Jeff,

    Trust me, i’m no expert on economics. What i understand is very basic and for the most part, immutable.

    What you’ve described in terms of “worlds” (developing and first) had captured a fundamental truth of economics. If you trace all the movement of production over the past… let’s keep is simple and say 400 years it always follows the path of cheapest resistance. Or, simply track the “Made in…” labels on products over the past 40 years and you’ll see a remarkable variety of dance partners for the “industrialist”.

    Cheap labor benefits everybody but the labor.

    The bottom line is this:

    Unless an individual is driven by an extra-economic morality to be fair about the distribution of their own wealth, the poor will always be with us.

    AmWay post script: i’d hate to be in the last group of AmWay subscribers in a saturated world. In the same way, i’d hate to be the last country on the “Made in…” list. Granted that’s a condition of ridiculous extrapolation, but that’s where these economic systems reach their end point – nobody left to make the toilet paper.


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