The strange case of the copyright of open-source software

Economists make a grave mistake when they fail to mention open-source software as one of the critical innovation of our era. Open-source software offers a great reference for the type of innovation we will get in the post-industrial era. To economists, open-source software does not matter because it does not count very much toward the GDP… but I think it is a critical hidden variable.

The Internet runs largely on open-source software from its servers (Apache) to its operating-system (Linux). The current smartphone war is being won by Android, an open-source system that uses the open-source Linux kernel. Cloud computing is largely a matter of open-source software, again based on Linux.

In our current legal system, we can own information through the concept of copyright. You would think that who owns this software would be a critical issue.

So who does? In many instances, it is one company, such as Oracle and Google. Or sometimes it might be a particular university. But in a lot of important cases, the copyright is simply owned by whoever wrote it (which might include companies):

  • Linux is copyrighted by “Linus Torvalds and others who actually wrote it”.
  • Most web browsers (Chrome, Opera, Safari) are based on WebKit. Who owns WebKit? Its authors. WebKit, like Linux, started out as one-man project (KHTML by Lars Knoll).

Why is it worth noting?

Many would assume that critical pieces of software should be owned and controlled by a large company, a reputed university or another impressive organization. For end-user software, that is often the case. But much of the underlying software is written by regular programmers without much fanfare… It is put together without permission.

My theory is that open-source software is an invisible college for programmers. Software programmers have an impact that is out of proportion with how much they get paid (and they get paid well enough) in part because of all the brilliant processes they have invented. Programmers are masters at collaboration. And open-source software is one of these ingredients.

Many people, including many professional programmers remain unaware… they often work for a corporation, and deal with other programmers working for other serious sounding companies… they never stop to consider that much of the underlying infrastructure is built through an invisible college.

I asked a few people who owned Linux. Many people told me that it was the Linux Foundation. That’s false. I asked how open Apple was regarding its browser software, and most people told me that Apple was secretive and that all their software was built in-house in a proprietary fashion. That’s false.

All these computer companies along with a good fraction of the very best independent programmers take part in the invisible college that is open-source software. This invisible college is not based on authority. Prestige buys you little good will. Contributions are what matters in the end. And the copyright ownership is a reflection of this underlying culture.

Daniel Lemire, "The strange case of the copyright of open-source software," in Daniel Lemire's blog, June 13, 2016.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “The strange case of the copyright of open-source software”

  1. Fully agree. Was overhearing a conversation someone was having with our most famous ECON 101 instructor at Waterloo and he just didn’t seem to get the open source thing, being an IP traditionalist.

  2. Richard Stallman deserves a lot more credit than he is generally given for initiating the idea of open source under the name of “free software”. I believe that he was the first to realize that copyright law could be used as a means to allow people to collaborate and improve software without necessarily knowing who they’re collaborating with, and using the right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative written work (the source code) in a way (the license, such as the GPL) that allows others to create derivative works (the next vesion) and keeps it perennially available. I don’t know if most lawyers even now appreciate how cool this is.

  3. I would disagree with the claim that for economists open-source stuff does not matter. Sure, its impact is difficult to measure and it does not enter GDP calculations per-say. However, it does enter the the scope of economic research via changes in productivity, i.e. being be able to produce more stuff, with the same resources, now that your software is free.

    Of course, we can argue if we have good ways to measure productivity (and I believe we don’t), but I am not convinced that economists are completely blinded by that fact

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