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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