[Fsf-friends] Innovativeness in Property Relations

Sasi Kumar sasi.fsf@[EMAIL-PROTECTED]
Thu Jun 7 15:53:04 IST 2007

Here is a rather sketchy write-up on the seminar on Free Software and Free
Culture held at Mascot Hotel at Thiruvananthapuram.

The Seminar started at 5:30 and the hall was almost full. Mr. Jyothilal,
Secretary of the IT Department, welcomed the gathering.

The first talk was by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik on Innovativeness in Property
Relations. He spoke very briefly, but demolished the idea that innovation
cannot happen without exclusion. He quoted Schumpeter, a great supporter of
capitalism, to show that the concept of private property in ideas goes
totally against capitalism. Taking the example of two companies, he showed
that the best course for each company will always be to innovate. This is
true even without the s-called "Intellectual Property Rights". These rights
are in addition to the financial benefits they get from innovation.

Prof. Eben Moglen spoke next. His talk was called  Freeing the Mind: Free
Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture. But he seems to have departed
much from what he normally speaks about when he speaks on this topic. He
started where Prof. Patnaik left. He said that this was the first time that
he has had the government people on his side! His arguments were from the
practical point of view which, in a sense, complemented Prof. Patnaik's
theoretical analysis.

He said that monopoly rights for the innovator is not an essential
pre-requisite for innovation to happen. As an example, he pointed to Free
Software itself. He said that we have created software that is better than
proprietary ones by any technological criteria. And this happened without
any monopoly rights for anyone. He said that the company that has
accumulated the highest amount of money has innovated very little. Its word
processor, he said, was incapable of producing any good-looking document. He
narrated an instance where he was asked by an advocate in the US what he
used for creating legal documents for submission to courts. When he replied
that he used a software called LaTeX, the other advocate wanted to learn
LaTeX. Microsoft did not innovate, they purchased. The application called
Word was purchased from the Palo Alto Research Centre of Rank Xerox. The
company itself came to prominence because IBM did not want their own
software to go into the PC they designed and manufactured. He said that it
is not possible to delve deeply into justifications for capitalism without
encountering contradictions.

In his opinion, it was not capitalism that brought wealth to the US, but
initiatives that were more socialist than capitalist. Like the free
university education given to retired military personnel at public
institutes. Another was the high spending in research during to the cold
war. He said that steps like these had led to a lot of infrastructure
development. Once the cold war ended, and the government started to reduce
funding for research, things started changing. Developments in technology,
he said, were not cutting at the roots of the structure that crated them.
The copyright and patent laws that were supposedly meant to promote
innovation were, in fact, slowing them down. Any innovation now involved
negotiations with several people who held the rights. Information Technology
now makes it possible to make infinite copies of different kinds of software
-- programs, music, video, text, and so on -- and this is posing a threat to
the companies that were making money from these things. This kind of a
situation had been predicted by Marx and Engels, he said, though such
technologies could not have been thought of in those days.

Prof. Moglen said that all patent laws, including the ones in the US are
archaic. A cost-benefit analysis is done on everything the government does.
But no such analysis is done to see whether a patent would do more harm than
benefit to society before the patent is granted. In other words, innovation
is given infinite weightage. The prevention of software patents would give
enormous benefits to society, he said. The human species learned to
manipulate the world, to control nature for its own benefit. All this
happened because of the large brain and hands that were freed when homo
sapiens became bipeds. There is the question of which came first. Modern
research shows that man became a biped first and it was later that the brain
enlarged. Surprisingly Frederick Engels had stated this two centuries ago.
He had said that it was the use of hands for manipulating the external world
and experimenting with it that led to the increase in brain size.

Prof. Moglen said that computer networking had brought about a big change in
the way we live. If we switch off the net now, deny the Internet to
everyone, a lot of people will find it very difficult to lead a normal life.
When a young woman decided to quit myspace, a new community was created to
encourage her to come back to the site because she used to be the custodian
of all their photographs. The network has changed even the job market.

The market is the central point of focus in economics and it decides how
resources are allocated under scarcity. You have the demand curve and the
supply curve and things like that to determine what shall be the price of a
commodity. You have the fixed cost and the marginal cost and things like
that. So you sell a loaf of bread for the marginal cost. But suppose there
are people who cannot afford to buy the bread at the marginal cost, it leads
to injustice. Suppose you have a machine which requires only one loaf of
bread to begin with and you can generate thousands of loaves by just
pressing a button. Then the marginal cost becomes zero, and it is unfair to
charge for each loaf.

The network has made possible Free Software, which is frictionless at the
network. Here, the fixed cost is covered because human beings love to
create. The marginal cost is virtually zero. The economist, homunculus
economicus, does not see human nature. The reductionist economist went on
reducing until he reduced everything, including himself. This economic
dwarfconsiders human beings as individuals. John Donne had said, "No
man is." We
are not islands. The guy who made Free Software did not do so because he had
a monopoly. He did so because he could not have done anything else. This is
what makes meaning in, and meaning of, life. People simply enjoy doing
things, and one of the best examples for this is Wikipedia. He said that one
aspect of Wikipedia is sufficient to demonstrate this -- the breaking news.
He said that the breaking news in Wikipedia is better than any other media
because people the world over are seeing/hearing news and putting it in
Wikipedia. Prof. Moglen said that his blog is often behind Wikipedia when it
comes to matters about himself. This is proof of the fact that a
proof-of-concept + running code + community leads to production without
property. He also mentioned his Correlative Corollary to Faraday's Law. He
said that, like in Faraday's Law, take the community, wind the net around it
and spin the world, and you get information flowing through the network. We
take from people according to their ability and give to people according to
their need.

There were a few questions related to the topic, which were mostly kind of
clarifying his statements. The meeting ended around 8 pm.

V. Sasi Kumar
Free Software Foundation of India
Please see: http://swatantryam.blogspot.com/

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