When “Barter” Is Not, Or Why GPL Is Actually Epiphenomenal

The good people at Groklaw have a post up from yesterday entitled, “The GPL Barter Cycle — A Graphic” which endeavors to elucidate how open source software is a self-contained barter cycle. The process diagram is lucid and the thesis it explains is similarly clear. But, there appears to me to be something missing.

For those that don’t know, GPL is a “copyleft” license. It provides a framework by which software source code can be freely distributed, and ensures that any derivative work carries the same expectation of free distribution. Which, I think this is a great thing, isn’t it? Because of GPL, we have innovations that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Mobile devices, embedded devices, start-up businesses; a great many things have been the beneficiary of the open source movement.

There’s just one little problem. Many proponents of open source seem to be suggesting that all software should be free. What’s more, they spare no sophistry to make their convoluted case for how software should somehow transcend the property rights that made its existence possible in the first place. This strikes me as not such a good thing for open source.

GPL Barter Cycle Diagram
A “barter” cycle, but only if you ignore one of the most important inputs.

If you click through to the Groklaw post, you’ll see their diagram. I’ve altered it above. You can click the image in this post to see it at full size. You see, I think they’ve left out the most important input. Without this input, open source goes away. The input is the livelihood made by open source contributors at their day jobs. Without proprietary software firms, these open source contributors would have no income, and would be too invested in finding other employment to be donating their time to this ostensible barter cycle.

My point is that GPL is an epiphenomenon of the marketplace. Take away property rights wholesale, and you kill open source. In the vacuum left by any hypothetical abolition of proprietary software, there is no mechanism by which developers can be compensated for their work. A working copy of Linux doesn’t pay your mortgage or put food on the table.

A sober analysis would seem to suggest that open source advocates would appreciate the existence of the proprietary software market. As it stands, open source ideologues often gesticulate grandly so as to distract their proselytes from the basic economic facts. <yoda>Cutting off their noses to spite their faces they are.</yoda>

Props to PO1R, who created the diagram at Groklaw, and Larry Ewing in turn for the Tux logo used therein.