Brazil: Free and Open Source Culture Is Economics, Not Politics


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

May 05, 2016 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Over the years people have accused Free and Open Source Culture (FOSC) as being a “religion”. Other people have used FOSC as a political tool, assigning the advocacy of FOSC to one political party; usually the “left”, “liberal” or (as some people call them) “progressive” party.

FOSC is none of these. It is an economic model just like “Communism”, “Socialism” (yes, those are two different things) or “Capitalism”.

People also tend to forget that economic models are usually never “pure”. One of my favorite sayings is that “unbridled capitalism is almost as bad as unbridled communism”, and that typically a good mix of economic models is better than “purity”.

One of my favorite countries in the world, Brazil, is in the throws of a very bad political situation and I am told that various political parties seem to think that closed source software is better for the country than FOSC (including “Free Software”, “Open Hardware” and “Open Culture”). Nothing could be further from the truth.

FOSC is centered in the economic model of (for lack of a better term) I will call “cooperative-ism” (or “collaboration”).

When I was at university (at the height of the hippie culture) we had a cooperative grocery store. The people who owned the store were the people who worked there in conjunction with the people who bought food at the store. The people who worked there received a reasonable, “industry standard” wage, and the profits were returned to the customers in the form of lower prices on the food or better quality, both of which created even more customers.

Another example of cooperative measures can be seen in the Amish people, who will gather together to help a neighbor build a new barn, or help a neighbor plow a field, expecting that that neighbor will eventually help them do something. Thus every Amish person does not need to own a plow and horse (although a lot do) because they know they can borrow what they need as long as they “pay it back” or “forward”. Yet these people are not “communists”, since they still have personal property, and there are various levels of wealth in the families.

When I was a student at Drexel the age of computers was still in its infancy. Computers were physically very large (refrigerator to room size), used three-phase power, large air-conditioning units and were very, very expensive. On the other hand they were typically logically very small, with memories in the thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of bytes (in the very largest ones). Most computers ran one program at a time.

If you wanted to write programs you typically had to work for a company or a university. Software was typically distributed in source code and you had to compile it and get it to work on your computer by yourself. Distributing software in binary form was close to non-existent since there were few computers of any one type. It did not make sense to develop a binary image for so few computers. Commercial software, written by third parties was very expensive.

An exception to this was software purchased from various libraries of user groups. The Digital Equipment Corporation's User Group (DECUS), SHARE from IBM and Brainstorm from Novell were all examples of user groups that offered software written by their customers to the general public, typically for the price of copying and mailing the software to people who ordered it. The people that wrote this software were not “professional programmers”, but people (physicists, chemists, business people) who needed the software for their own use, and were happy when someone else could use it. They were ecstatic when someone sent them a patch to fix a bug or offered to buy them a dinner when they were at one of the user group meetings. Sometimes (but not always) these programs lead to job offers working for companies that used their software.

All of these reasons (and more) are why people write “Free Software” today.

In the beginning of the modern (GNU) movement of FOSC, there were a relatively few people who expounded the creation and use of “Free Software”. Many of these people looked a little like the hippies of yesterday, with long beards and hair, and “real business” people tried to ignore them.

Over time, however, the real economics of FOSC started to emerge, and people who were starting new projects realized that they did not have to start writing all the code for every project. They could just search the Internet for pieces of software that exist and then change the code to meet their needs.

Researchers who were working on genomes could use a free database instead of spending thousands of dollars for a “commercial” one. They could concentrate on solving their real research problem instead of worrying how they could afford closed source code to help solve their problem. By using FOSC, they could intermingle their research code with other code that helped to illustrate the problem, then distribute all of the research later instead of having to use “diffs”, and have their collaborators guess at the rest.

Small companies, just starting out, could use tools to create their products and services for little or no money. As their revenues grew they could afford to change the tools to better meet their needs. This allows innovation that can create more jobs.

I often point out that every job that a person can do with closed source, proprietary code they can also do with FOSC (install, integrate, instruct, systems administer, create solutions, etc.) and the users of FOSC can do one more job which they can not do with closed source and that is to change the source code of the programs to meet the customer's needs.

Why would any government, “far right” or “far left” want to hamper the ability of their people to create software locally, or to facilitate a policy that ships billions of dollars of money outside their economy every year when that money could be used to create high-tech, high value programming jobs locally?

Therefore when I hear that FOSC projects or policies may be eliminated or changed to closed source just because of a political change in the government, it makes me very upset.

Let us have real reasons why companies and governments in Brazil should or should not use FOSC. I think the Brazilian people are tired of false reasons.

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