Are FOSS and Creative Commons important for unions?

“The new order is predicated upon open access, decentralized participation, and cheap and easy sharing.” (David Bollier)

The Commons Movement is a political, ecological and cultural movement to reclaim the Commons. Its central principle is that the resources of the earth – the Commons – are the collective responsibility and property of all. This includes control of the means of production of wealth and culture.

While this would appear to be a proto-Marxist idea, it has come about as a meeting between political activism, cultural practice, information technology, ecology and traditional culture. Its development in ecology is as a result of Hardin’s observation on traditional property ownership in The Tragedy of the Commons that resources held in common tend to become exploited, and need to be controlled accountably.

It has intersected with the development of digital culture, and the ideological struggle to make this culture freely available to all. In 1983, information technologist and software freedom activist Richard Stallman – increasingly concerned with the effects of proprietary software on intellectual freedom – developed the concepts of Copyleft and the General Public Licence (GPL), which would allow users to freely alter and reuse any cultural or intellectual product, including computer software. He explained his reasons on the GNU Manifesto, which many consider to be the birth of the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS):

“In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair, and asteroid prospecting.”

FOSS has grown into a significant movement since Stallman’s Manifesto, and there are now Free and Open Source Software packages – developed by practitioners – for almost any task. Software is culture. Technological development has historically been influenced by socio-economic factors, and served the interests of the elite. However, new technologies and the FOSS movement mean that technological development is no longer solely in the hands of the elite.

By embracing the ‘digital commons’, practitioners can create value through distributed peer production –  ‘crowdsourcing’.

Clearly, this shows that ICTs are more than just tools: they offer the potential for the development of an alternative mode of production. Corporate control of technological development has lead to the increased exploitation of workers and the earth’s resources; Stallman suggests that by decentralising technological development, it can remain within the Commons and contribute to a richer existence for all.

The FOSS movement offers not just Greene et al’s ‘distributed discourse’, but a distributed mode of production that many believe will become the dominant mode in the future:. Tapscott and Williams (2007) believe that the world is shifting to a form of peer production which they term ‘Wikinomics’. This idea of a Creative Commons has spread, and includes the Open Courseware movement, designed to make educational resources freely available.

I haven’t had time to investigate the implications of the FOSS movement and digital commons in any depth, it seems worthwhile to suggest that the aims of this movement are congruent with those of the trade union movement. What does this mean practically for unions?

According to Natasha Primo, there is a natural partnership between the FOSS movement, social movements and non-profit organisations. Why, then, do most trade unions still buy proprietary software from multinational companies, when a supportive community of activists is able to provide free, Copyleft software that fulfils the same requirements?

At the very least, trade unions should seriously consider moving to FOSS as a matter of policy. A wider exploration of the ideological implications of distributed production would also be advisable. It is worth pointing out that the developers of the Obama campaign understand the cultural implications of new technologies, and released all campaign materials under a General Public Licence, giving the public the legal right to “remix and reuse” these materials.

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