Friday, November 13, 2009

Linux philosophix!

I've been playing with Linux since the beginning of the year. I've been playing harder the last 6 months. I've gotten things to work, but I haven't felt comfortable, so I've kept messing about, trying to find out what it will take to get me comfortable with Linux. I think, to some degree, I won't be quite comfortable until I have the same degree of familiarity that I do with Windows. I recently wrote the following bit on a Linux forum. Thought I might share it. I've actually been writing quite frequently lately, little bits for a daily journal, about my linux experience.

In wandering the various Linux forums, in search of answers, I ran across an interesting Latin quote. I looked the translation up, and viola, I was inspired. Basically, the "free software" advocates have picked up on the quote as a motto for sharing software, as in free software. It struck me that their motto actually could be taken to justify something quite different from "free" software.

"Omnis enim res, quae dando non deficit, dum habetur et non datur, nondum habetur, quomodo habenda est."
English translation:
"For if a thing is not diminished by being shared with others, it is not rightly owned if it is only owned and not shared."
. . .
This quote can be found in Book I, Chapter 1 "De doctrina christiana" "Corpus Christianorum", "Series latina", Vol. 32, p. 6, lines 10-11. Written 397 AD by Saint Augustinus.
It originally referred to the principle of giving and sharing preached by Jesus but fits almost perfectly on the philosophy of Free Software where one can share without losing.

--from the Free Software Foundation (of Europe) website


**************** The post ********************

I had to LOL on reading the latin quote, attributed to Augustine of Hippo (Aurelius Augustinus). I love it. Not only does it apparently fit the free software philosophy - but it fits the "pay for" software too! The why hinges on this: "if a thing is not diminished by being shared" (and I'll stick with the English translation given, I'll give you no tricks in translation from the original). In the spirit of economics and the market, if a man can build something that someone else is willing to buy, then he can rightfully claim that sale, and make the profit. That, dear readers, is the foundation of the marketplace itself. If, by virtue of being bigger and stronger, another man grabs that product, or the profit, then the marketplace has been subverted, and we have entered the realms of politics and crime. This is the foundation of the anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft!

But, returning to the concept of sharing, and diminishment. In the first thought, when a man builds something special, and is able to derive a monetary profit from same, then the profit can be regarded as a de facto part of that something. If in sharing that something, he diminishes the profit, then the something is thereby diminished. This, by the way, is Microsoft's argument about "lost profit" from pirated software, which is a rich source for a discussion of "what" does diminish mean, and "when" is it applicable! However, the loss of profit issue is akin to any workman's tools, or an artist's productions. When the workman's tools are in use by others - he cannot use them to make his daily living. When the artist or artisan creates a product that is co-opted by sharing, he also is unable to then make a profit from it, since the possession of it is no longer in his hands!

My thought, then, is that Augustine's quote is not so applicable as some people might think. It is, however, a surprising tool for realizing that a balance must be reached, between free and non-free software.
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I've gotten a couple of comments. One said:
That premise has something very far-stretched. Would you say that bread is part of the baker, or that meal is part of the oven?

Not far-stretched at all. At some point in my earlier years, I recall reading a classical Greek discussion of what a man needed when he created a community - somebody to make shoes, somebody to bake the bread, etc. So, even back then, when Plato was discussing perfect community structures, the concept of task-specialization was old. When a baker produces bread, the first benefit comes to the baker. Whether that benefit is the safety of his life, or a more direct financial profit matters not. The point is that the baker does derive a benefit, and can derive benefits other than just the eating of the bread. While these benefits are not specifically part of the physical structure of the bread, obviously, they very decidedly are a direct result of the bread being made, and are thus, in this fashion, part of the bread. They don't exist without each other - unless you just got conned (hey dude, I've got some really great bread today, dude, give me some bucks, I'll be right back!).

Now, let's see if anybody gets to the deep end of this pool. Sometimes - and this is one of the arguments for no patents on software - a product is so essential to a society, that it is held to be an infrastructure. The importance of this is that it might then receive a special status in that culture. A modern example is our highway system. We taxpayers pay to support it, not the users. A 19th century example in the US would be railroads. Another example, Ma Bell was granted a monopoly on the premise that everybody would have the service available. Same thing.

Patents extend the time when a maker can derive monopoly profit, and may, in some instances, slow development by competitors that directly uses the same "something" we've gotten the patent on. Competitors are still free to develop alternatives. In some industries, that sort of competition can lead to exorbitant pricing - perfect example is the pharmaceutical industry. You have whole pharma companies who will ditch a product as soon as the patents wear out. They only seek products that are saleable in that monopoly profit zone, due to the high profit. And we, the consumer, either get the shaft, or get the benefit, depending on who you talk to. Sometimes patenting can lead to a stronger competition. I believe the only thing that can be said for sure, is that patenting, IF there is a market, will yield a higher sales price.

This is why, sometimes, society chooses to diminish the ability of an artisan to derive profit from his making. At some point, the society can make a judgement, and say "x" amount of profit is enough. While there have been cultures who methodically redistributed wealth (potlatch culture is one), I can't think of much we do today that really fits this definition. One current example I can think of is software pirating. There is a certain argument there that these companies are SO profitable, that they can, and should, be giving more benefit to the consumer. Laws against windfall profiteering would be another example.

Now, consider this question - is an OS a natural monopoly? In other words, will the market continually trend to a situation where a single OS is completely dominant, and where there is very little competition? Our current market is NOT quite there, but it is very close. Microsoft doesn't completely control the price they charge, but they are very very close. Should we consider the OS market as an infrastructure, and support it via our community money supply (taxes)? I believe Spain and Brazil are doing something like this. China seems to be delving into this idea as well.

Oops - sorry, I got to rambling on a little, ya? It's a complex business. Imo, the best answer is the one that will deliver the most benefit for the most end-users.


And that was the end of the post - at least so far. I thought I would get mightily flamed on this forum for these ideas, as many free software believers are quite aggressive about the whole business, but I haven't yet. It's probably not because they agree, more likely because my writing was just plain boring to them - too many words, too much verbal thought involved. [Posters in these forums are usually techies, and as such, are less verbal.] There is always tomorrow.

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