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Re: [ox-en] New pages in the introduction

Oh dear, here we go... another long argument^H^H^H^H^H^H^discussion

On Mon, 13 May 2002, Stefan Meretz wrote:

Hi Graham,

whow, that's a quite important topic you brought up, which not had been 
discussed on ox IIRC. It was discussed on another list (called "joint") 
A> before having ox, Stefan Mn, do you remenber? Long time ago...

Am Freitag, 10. Mai 2002 00:08 schrieb Graham Seaman:
Commercial software is not a commodity, and has no value. It has no
value in the sense that it has no price (you cannot buy software, and
eg. Microsoft's EULAs always say 'you have not bought this software').

The argument sounds like "you cannot own software", and I think this is a 
correct statement. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with the following.

It has negligeable value in the classical and Marxist economist's sense
of labour value, since the costs of creating the original are a fixed
cost, like the design of physical objects, and the labour involved in
reproduction of software is almost (not quite) zero. It has no value in
the neoclassical sense that the marginal cost is zero in the limit.
However you look at it, it has no value. So, it is also not a
commodity, at least not in the Marxist sense in which it's used on the
'blotter' page, any more than free software is.

IIRC "commodity" is defined as follows:
- a good which is made by independent _private_ producers
- the good has only a value if it is _exchanged_: no exchange, no value
This means:
- the value of the good appears as exchange value
- "value" is comparison of amount of labor of exchanged products
- not single products are compared, but a product with a "mean product"
- "value" and "commodity" are notions of societal mean

Applied to software this means that all labor necessary for development 
and production is distributed on all specimen successfully exchanged on 
market. It is more or less the same situation as in "normal" products. 

No, software is not exchanged - at least not with consumers. I don't see
why the situation is different from TV programs: there is a market among
TV companies for programs, and they sell them to one another. But they do
not sell them to the people who watch them. Similarly, there could be a
market for programs (though as far as I can see, it doesn't really exist -
usually companies buy software produced elsewhere by buying the entire
company), but there is no market for, or exchange of program copies. If
you do not own the software you pay MS or other companies for, surely it
hasn't been exchanged? It is a kind of rent (which MS's new licensing
policies make explicit).

[Note: the above statement isn't entirely true - it is possible to have
a market for program copies based on their real value; you can see it in
Russian street markets, for example. This value is derived from the value 
of the CD, depreciation of the CD copier, labour of the person running the
copiers, etc. But that isn't the kind of market we're talking about here]

The only difference is: The development expense goes to 1 and production 
expense to 0, while in normal products you have, say 0.5 to 0.5 or 0.7 to 
0.3 - neclecting all other "expenses" (which could very, very high: ads, 
lawyer etc.). 
How can development expense go to 1? If you take a single product, then
its development cost goes to zero as soon as you look at marginal costs
(by the definition of differentiation). I think the only way to salvage
your argument is to say that software necessarily requires continuous
upgrades, so development cost is not a constant. But my counter-argument
would be that continuous development (eg Word->Word97->Word2000->...)
is necessary only to keep people paying repeatedly..

Therefore, my counter argument is: Because "commodity", "value" etc is a 
societal notion, you cannot compare a single specimen of "software" and a 
single specimen of "car". In general and concerning the question of being 
a commodity the situation in software is only quantitatively different 
from other products.
Counter: because 'value' is a societal notion (linked with the idea that
you have to pay for things because other people work to make them), 
and people are perfectly that software has no value, people have no 
inhibitions about copying software, taping TV programs etc. It is not
stealing, as taking things with value would be.

All the same, I agree it's 'only' quantitatively different. There's 
nothing magic about software itself. But the quantitative difference
between the costs of copying software, or of copying a TV program,
and of copying a chair, is so big that saying 'only' quantitative
makes the difference sound less than it is. When we have home fabbers
that difference will disappear ;-)

BTW: It is part of the ox arguing, that the process we face in software is 
only the peak of the normal ongoing process in general (immaterial 
development part increases relatively).

Yes, this is what I am disagreeing with at bottom. I am saying that
the material development part decreases hugely, while the immaterial
development part is just a constant, not a variable; it always has been a
constant, and this has not changed. This has a lot of implications for
parts of the Oekonux argument, I know...

If you are charged money to use software, it is not because of its
value, but because the law says that someone owns it and can set what
conditions they like for its use.

In bourgois society you always and everywhere have laws. The special form 
of law and the form of commodity are constituents of bourgois society. 
Patent laws and copyright laws were not made for software!

Of course. But IP laws were never the foundation of the whole society,
which till now has always been based on work and consequently value. 
Why is this important? If commercial software has value, like physical
goods, then if free software disappears (say patents are applied to all
software, or rising nationalism leads to the internet being shut off -
insert favourite nightmare here) everything carries on much as before.
Just one more utopian possibility that didn't get fully realised (I
don't think this is remotely likely).

But if commercial software has no value, and technology continues to
lead to more things being digitisable and so also having no value, then
if free software disappears we do not end up where we were before. We
end up in a society not based on value, but on law-based ownership.
Since this conflicts with all the ideas of freedom present in
capitalist society, we also end up with a drastic loss of freedom.

I think, this is the ongoing fight about who can use (or usurp) the 
"general knowledge" (Marx). This topic is widely addressed by Hardt/Negri 
in "Empire" (in their broader terms: bio politics - adopted from Bourdieu 
AFAIK), however, I didn't read it yet. Anybody does?
Yes, it is interesting but fundamentally I didn't like it. Some parts
(maybe the parts by Negri?) are easy to read, other parts are full of
postmodernist terminology and I found them much harder - I would recommend
getting a German translation if possible! I didn't have the feeling that
it had much direct relevance to Oekonux arguments (except as far as it has
a common heritage from parts of the Grundrisse etc). Did I miss something,
anyone who read it? The last part (on global migration as the basis for
a new alternative) seemd just 'stuck on' to me, not a result of any
logical development. It could equally well have been replaced with a
section on free software, or almost anything...
Did you read Jeremy Rifkin's 'Age of Access'? That's closer to my 

If I'm right, saying 'free software is not a commodity' does not
distinguish it from commercial software, which is also 'worthless as
the air we breathe'. One possible conclusion from that is that all
software should be free, as should all formulae for medicine, all
genetic knowledge, etc. etc. (as opposed to having to create an
equivalent, special 'free' version of all the existing commodity

Well, what keep us off from saying: Human activities are "worthless as the 
air we breathe"? For me setting some commodities "free" can only be the 
first step. I cannot see, that anybody will be more convinced, if you 
argue, that 'software is not a commodity' - by "nature" or what is your 
ground? All was societal made...

My ground is also social. If something takes very little work to copy, it
is impossible to make it into a real commodity. It is possible to pretend
it is a commodity (put a CD in a big empty box), but it is still not
really a commodity, since commodities are based on work to produce things
for exchange in a market. This is a social fact, not a natural one.  And
if the core activities of society are not based on commodities, but on a
kind of rent, then this is a big problem for capitalism as a system, which
it will only be able to patch over by more and more unpleasant laws, 
destroying more and more of our freedom. Rent is compatible with 
capitalism, but can't be the basis for the whole system without the
system becoming something else.
I don't think this argument will convince anyone of the rightness of free
software better than your argument, but it does make other differences.

For example, there was a recent article on Marxism and Copyleft on . The author, like you, says software (and
information in general) has increased in value. As a result he predicts
struggles over this value between commercial software houses and free
software developers, with the lack of value of free software devaluing
paid programmers work. People who don't see this ('open source'
supporters) are cast as some kind of naive or treacherous people in the
middle (I'm exaggerating, but I think this is the trend of what he says).
I think this is completely and utterly wrong.

Another difference: most medicines can be produced very cheaply (the value
of a bottle of pills is mostly very close to the value of a CD of
software), and prices are kept artifically high by IP law. Medicine should
be free (not necessarily as in beer, and not without legal controls over
manufacture and testing, but without restrictions caused by IP law). The
countries asking for the right to make their own AIDS medicines at their
true value are doing so on the same grounds as people who say software
should be free. But if you say software/medicine have value because of an
increased immaterial part, it is harder to see such common ground.
An oekonux argument might be: 'They have value, so it's normal to produce
them as commodities. Unless there are groups of chemists designing new
medicines without pay, there is no non-commodity alternative to the 
current system'. Maybe that's unfair to oekonux, but it sounds a logical
consequence to me - oder nicht? 



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