FLOSS and commons: the roots

How etymology of the word commons illuminates FLOSS

When we started discussing about next version of 2020 Floss Roadmap, we agreed to insist on the importance of FLOSS to be acknowledged as a commons. And this brought to the table three questions: “why FLOSS should be considered as a commons?”, “Who has to acknowledged FLOSS as a commons?” and “How to make this commons sustainable?”. Analyzing the specificity of a commons and how it relates to FLOSS, Cedric Thomas[1] pointed us to Alain Lipietz [2]‘s remarkable paper titled “Questions about Commons”. In this paper Lipietz gives a lot of insightful reflections about the nature of commons and especially exposes the etymology of the word commons: it finds its origin from the Norman word “commun”(still in use in French) which derives from Latin “munus”, which means both “gift” and “duty.” Sharing this information with David Bollier [3], he was so intrigued that we decided to translate this article into English. All together we highly recommend you to read this edifying text — English version / French version.

In “Questions about Commons “, Lipietz explains that “munus”... means both gift and duty. To receive a gift — a munus — is to be obliged to respond with a counter-gift.” This dual meaning reflects properly the intrinsic nature of FLOSS. Let’s have a look to GNU Linux with its large “com mun ity” [4] of contributors and its wide adoption: Linus Torvalds as “ benevolent dictator”, is in charge of regulating the commons i.e. GNU Linux Kernel. With “mun ificence”, he shares his source code freely, works at integrating contributions of other developers and finally he offers to anyone, free access and usage to a highly complex and valuable piece of technology. These days, Torvalds also gets a “re num eration” for his activities and has the ability to make a living out of this commons[5]. This dual meaning of “munus” explains also the mechanism by which FLOSS has the capability to transform software development into a virtuous circle, and at the end of the day, to deliver better and larger software for everyone. Reciprocity is at the heart of commons and FLOSS: developers give to you access and usage to software, and in return, you may (or may not) contribute under different forms such as adding code, providing bug reports or writing documentation. These basic principles are clearly exposed by Lipietz when he writes that “the commons are not [only] things, but social relations [to produce or create things]. “ And so is FLOSS: it is not yet another artifact but a process to develop software in a collaborative way, and this process can describe itself as a social relationship. Here we have our answer to our first question: actually Floss should be considered as a commons because both are of the same nature.

Lipietz provides also guidance to the two other issues i.e. acknowledgment and sustainability of FLOSS. Describing the historical relations which have always articulated the commons with political power and market, he describes what should be the rules of the game and who are the players.

Concerning political power, Lipietz develops the ideas of regulation of commons by the state and he adds that the state has a role to play in the redistribution of wealth generated by the commons. This implies also the responsibility of the state “for maintaining a local commons of global interest.” He precises that when “the state is the gatekeeper and custodian,” it “ is obliged to obtain the prior informed consent of the local community, if granted access, while sharing the profits with this community. “ Here we have good hope that under the influence of some pioneers such as Brazil or Canada, and in regards to recent positive signs in the Netherlands [6], in the UK [7] and in the USA [8], this key notion of reciprocity governing FLOSS, its usage and its sustainability, is starting to be understood and integrated by governments — the positions of powerful institutions such as DOD [9] or NATO [10] concerning FLOSS exemplifies this trend. May we expect that nations, European Union, United Nations, Unesco, etc. would officially acknowledge FLOSS as commons before 2020? Let’s work it out!

On the market side, if we consider that the market can serve the commons positively, then we can admit that this service should also be compensated by a fair “re mun eration.” The recent communication of Red Hat’s CEO to Obama’s administration about creation of jobs [11], is an example of good understanding on how FLOSS can benefit at the same time to private business and public good while preserving the integrity of commons. Actually we need companies to keep on contributing to commons, to get a remuneration and to facilitate the creation of healthy business ecosystems. But we also need to prevent this commons from any form of privatization. How is this feasible?

In fact the answer to this question belongs to multiple stakeholders i.e. to vibrant and various Floss communities, to renown activists such as R. Stallman or L. Lessig, to historical FLOSS “establishment” such as Free Software Foundation, Apache Foundation, Software Freedom Law Center,… and to members of civil society who are cautious for their freedom as citizens of a digital world, and join forces in organizations such as Electronic Frontier Foundation, Knowledge Ecology International, Quadrature du Net, April, … All of them are essential to assure that reciprocity is maintained in a sustainable manner, to make sure that the articulation of commons with political power and market is balanced at its best, and to sound the alarm when there is a risk of enclosure of the commons. All these individuals and organizations should be considered as key levers for making 2020 FLOSS Roadmap’s recommendation a reality i.e. “Acknowledge the intrinsic value of FLOSS infrastructure for essential applications as a public knowledge asset (or as ‘knowledge commons’), and consider new means to ensure its sustainable development.” So let’s count on them, support them and work with them.

Finally the key root of the word “Communication” being also “munus” (com mun icare i.e. to impart, share, or make common), we would like to thank Alain Lipietz for his insights which are nurturing our thoughts and are paving the way of our future communication.

Jean-Pierre Laisné,

2020 FLOSS Roadmap Team


Notes & References

1. Cedric Thomas is the CEO of the OW2 Consortium.  See Cedric Thomas’ presentation “Open Source and its Communities” – slides 14-32

2. Alain Liptiez is a French engineer, economist and politician, and a member of the French Green Party.

3. David Bollier is a journalist, activist, and public policy analyst as well as Editor of Onthecommons.org and co-founder of Public Knowledge. A Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center, Bollier is the author of numerous highly praised books, including Brand Name Bullies and Silent Theft. He lives in Amherst, MA. You can find his blog about Lipietz’ speech here.

4. About etymology of community, see also P2PFoundation

5. Linus Torvalds works under Linux Foundation ‘s auspices. Other examples about
Torvalds: “Red Hat and VA Linux, both leading developers of Linux-based software, presented Torvalds with stock options in gratitude for his creation. In 1999, both companies went public and Torvalds’ net worth shot up to roughly $20 million.”. More or less alike other key contributors to Linux kernel have also been hired by companies such as Red Hat, IBM, Novell, etc. (see “Linux Foundation Updates Study on Linux Development Statistics: Who Writes Linux and Who Supports It”)

6. “NL: Government to increase open source in key IT projects

7. “Government-wide IT strategy to be launched in December”. See also “The great British open-source arms race

8. “Five Technologies to See Huge Growth in US Gov’t, Group Says“. See also “Open sourcers aim selves at US gov“ 

9. USA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (CIO): CLARIFYING GUIDANCE REGARDING OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE (OSS)

10. NATO: STRATEGY FOR THE USE OF OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE IN NATO SYSTEMS (Doc: AC/322-D(2009)0015 (INV)

11. “Red Hat’s CEO on Obama jobs summit – ‘Creating jobs the open source way‘”

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