Re: [ox-en] Re: Value of software
- From: Graham Seaman <graham seul.org>
- Date: Mon, 10 Jun 2002 17:47:40 -0400 (EDT)
On Sun, 9 Jun 2002, Stefan Merten wrote:
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Hi Graham and list!
That's an interesting thread. Thanks for your thoughtful post :-) .
And thank you for your kind reply :-)
Ain't that civilized ... ;-)
Because we're both using a rather relating kind of replying style -
which I like most :-) - I keep most of the history so people can get a
clue of what we are talking about.
I've left it in too, but I haven't added very much this time :-(
6 days ago Graham Seaman wrote:
On Mon, 3 Jun 2002, Stefan Merten wrote:
On Mon, 13 May 2002, Stefan Meretz wrote:
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').
I'm not so sure, whether this is the whole truth. Isn't there software
which *is* actually sold to customers? It won't be software with a
wide use of course, because then scarcity would be a problem. However,
in niche markets you may actually sell (all the rights on) a software
you have written to your customer. BTW usually a customer in a niche
market won't be interested that competitors also get "their" software
which they can enforce by buying all the rights at the software.
Yes, some software is sold to customers. It's what my firm does all the
time. But it's not sold as a commodity - it's sold as a 'one-off' item,
for a particular need; it won't be copied, or resold. I don't know what
to call this - I used the term 'commercial software' above to mean
software which is copied in bulk for many people to use for a fee, like
Word or Excel. I believe most programmers write software for sale in the
sense you gave above; but I think this is clearly a kind of service,
rather than production of a commodity, so the question of value is not
Ok, if you see it that way you're right of course. So for a commodity
I conclude there must be an (anonymous) market where the exchange
value is realized. Otherwise you'd call it a service. Is that correct?
Yes, I'm using the same definition as Stefan Mz in an earlier post in this
thread; he wrote:
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
- 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
(the only difference between me and Stefan Mz here is that I'm not
clear what he means by 'mean' in the last sentence; I will ask him in
But isn't the difference between a service and a (usual) commodity
that, that with a service there is no product involved? This would be
not the case with service software.
Of course. But it is possible to argue that this distinction is not the
essential one. Firstly because there are many borderline cases in practice
(eg. a carpenter comes to my house to build me a bookcase. It seems
easier to accept that this is a service, even though he creates a physical
object). Secondly, on more theoretical grounds. For example, there is
a section in Marx' Theories of Surplus Value (chapter 4) where Marx
criticizes Adam Smith for taking the distinction between
physical/non-physical output as being the crucial one in deciding what
is productive or non-productive labour, whereas the more essential
distinction depends on the economic role of the labour.
Anyway, even if 'service' is not the best word, you're right that I just
mean something done to order (whether product or action) rather than
created for distribution on a market.
However, coming back to self-unfolding the distinction between
software as a result of service and software for a market isn't
relevant. The alienation takes place in both cases and thus
self-unfolding is limited - and thus quality I'm arguing all the time.
If you mean by 'alienation' that someone sells their time for money, and
that what they produce is intended to make a profit for the capital
employing them, rather than to satisfy their own or anyone else's needs,
then I agree there is no difference. If someone is being paid
by IBM (for example) to develop free software I'm not quite so clear,
although in the abstract it seems to be the same situation.
So I don't think the important difference is whether 'service' or
pretended commodity software production is more or less alienating. I
think the important thing is that 'commodity' software is a contradiction
in terms; it is something that does not fit properly with the rest of
the existing society, and so something that has bad effects not only at
the point of production, but also on the people who use it. I don't think
'service' software is the same.
M$ on the other hand is another case. They are selling (the rights to
use) software which everyone can use and most people don't give a shit
whether others can use the same software. However, M$ being actually
kind of greedy, is trying to create a M$ tax - which is kind of evil
even in a capitalist sense.
Personally I think the the 'MS tax' is confusing. Some people mean by it
that MS is overcharging relative to other software houses, but that's not
what I'm saying (even if it is also true). Also, the word 'tax'
assimilates it to something quite different, which has a real
justification - ie. funding of public works of various kinds.
Sorry, I just picked up the notion and did not really think about it.
However, in a way the attitude M$ is showing to me looks like becoming
a state in the state and thus the word tax gets some meaning.
Particularly this seems to be true for all the pre-installed Windows
copies you're buying together with a new computer.
don't think there is anything particularly 'evil' about MS - they are
simply the largest commercial software producer, and as such have the role
of public defender of the interests of commercial software producers in
general (eg. in trying to block the laws on use of free software by the
state in Brasil/Peru/Argentina/Catalunha/Spain etc, or in trying to stop
the use of the gpl by universities). If they were replaced in this
position by Sun, for example, Sun would behave in the same way.
This is of course true. The point about M$ is, that they not only have
a (near) monopoly but they behave rather disgusting. Other monopolists
did/do better I think.
Personally, I don't think so. Intel/IBM(in the 60s-70s)/Xilinx/...
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.
Sure they do. The more clear form is pay TV (which at the moment flops
greatly in Germany ;-) ) and the other form is that the consumers
"pay" by accepting being harassed by ads.
No they don't - you do not buy the programs you watch on pay tv. You pay
money to watch them, but you don't buy them - after paying the money, you
don't own the program or any part of it (and if you think you do, save the
program on video tape, and then sell the tape, you can be arrested). The
program is never sold to you; you just pay a fee (a kind of rent) to watch
it. It's not a traditional commodity at all.
This is again correct. Thanks for being exact. Rent indeed fits very
well: You get the limited right to use something in a certain way.
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.
Well, I'd question that this is much more social than other sort of
property. Property is something formal which always explicitly needs
to be enforced - so it's not natural in any case. You can see that
well in South America where landless farm workers occupy private
property not used by their owners. There are of course countless
The ideology of this society says that you go to work to make money, to
buy goods made by other people who have also worked to make them. Land
doesn't really fit into this well - land ownership is something older than
capitalism, even if it has adapted to it. That 'form of property' was
originally justified by tradition - my ancestors owned this land, so I do
I'm very keen to clarify this point. Indeed I think there is some kind
of "natural" property. There is even a word for it: possession. In
German it is called "besitzen" which includes "sitzen" which means to
sit and the "be" prefix adds "on something". I guess the English word
has the same roots.
As far as I know, 'possession' comes from Latin 'posse', to 'be able',
or 'to control'. It has the same root as 'potestas', power. I don't
think this is any more natural than any other definition of property
(if I remember correctly, late feudal law of ownership was based on
the idea of possession; and one of the innovations of John Locke and
18th century theories of ownership was to replace this idea with one
of ownership based on work. The old idea was 'I have a right to this
land because my ancestors seized it 500 years ago'; the replacement
idea was 'I have a right to this land because I (and my farmworkers,
but we won't mention them...) have cultivated it so it is now fertile'.)
It seems you're arguing for some kind of natural law, which I don't think
I believe in.
This type of possession comes from the visible fact that someone is
using something regularly - be it land, a flat or a laptop. There was
one scene in "Dances with Wolf" (I guess this was the English title)
where one of the Red Indians "stole" the cap of the US soldier. He
found it after the soldier has lost it while hunting IIRC. The
community made it clear, that the cap is the possession of the soldier
and so the finder had to give it back to the soldier - which he did
This is a type of property which needs no enforcement by formalized
powers (aka states) as property in general does. Sure there may be
force - like in the example - but it's of another nature I think. May
be it all depends whether a society / group of people is anonymous or
people are in contact with each other?
There are plenty of cases where someone uses something regularly but does
not own it. I don't think the Red Indians owned the land they used.
In the early Soviet Union the land was nationalised, but families had a
right to use it, and the right could pass to children, without the family
ever 'owning' it (I think that was the theory, at any rate).
This is a rather old question to me, and I'd really like to see some
Maybe you could say more about how the question relates to free software?
For most things now, the form of property is justified by work - I worked
to buy this, so I own it. If you have a washing machine and a disk with
Microsoft Word in your house, and I take either, then you will see me as a
thief; the property laws in this case have some social validity. The law
which stops me taking your property limits my freedom, but enhances yours;
and in the end most people accept it as a reasonable compromise. This
is a form of property we are all used to ('unnatural' or not).
But here possession as described above shines through. If you take my
washing machine I can't use it any longer. This is different for trash
like a Word disk ;-) . People rarely care whether their trash is
stolen - because they don't want to use it any longer.
Of course this does not hold very well for means of production owned
by a capitalist. The capitalist him-/herself doesn't use the means of
production directly - so in the sense above s/he doesn't possess them.
Indeed I think this is where people start to question whether this is
legitimate or not.
In my experience, this isn't true - most people don't question the right
of individual capitalists (or more likely shareholders etc) to own the
means of production. This is partly because they accept the idea of 'I
worked to get to where I am today (or my father or grandfather did)'
presented by the owners as being valid, and because they believe that one
day they too could be in the same position. But it's also partly because
of the physical nature of production - if I see a large chemical plant,
I never think 'I could own that instead' - it doesn't interest me at all,
and it won't fit in my house ;-). Sure, I can argue 'we should all own
that intead of it belonging to a few people', but the jump from the
current situation to one where we all own the means of production is too
great - it needs a revolution first, and everyone knows how wrong
revolutions can go...
And thus this is the point where you "need" some
formal enforcement - laws, police, states, all that.
I don't think so - generally, you can't steal the means of production,
they tend to be too big... :-)
But if I copy your disk, leaving the original, you won't see me as a
thief, because I have not deprived you of anything.
Yes. With digital copy the notion of theft in the sense of possession
becomes meaningless because I can still use my possession.
So for Microsoft to
have me treated as a thief requires a new ideology ('copying is theft')
and new laws which restrict both our freedoms. This is a different form of
property from the old one; not more or less natural - they're all social -
but different, worse, and easier to fight, since it conflicts with the
old one that people are used to.
In a way it's similar to the property rights on means of production.
Their only sense is to reserve the capitalist the exclusive right to
make money with it. This is similar how M$ argues.
I don't think it is similar to property rights on means of production.
Means of production don't make money on their own; they are part of a
whole system which employs people. People work with the means of
production to make products; they are paid for their work and so can live.
You may think this system is wrong, but people do survive in it, they
do buy houses, bring up children, etc.
Whereas proprietary software employs tiny numbers of people and makes its
money by overcharging customers (I would also argue that it has no choice
but to overcharge people). The proprietary software system does not
really involve any kind of bargain with you; it just says 'you will pay
this or you can't have me'. Hence people are happy to copy ('pirate')
it given the chance.
<snipped bit about medicine>
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?
May be that's the practical basis of all steps towards a GPL society:
That knowledge workers of all disciplines in their Free time start to
develop Free goods.
I'm starting to feel that this emphasis is wrong; it depends too much on
generalising from what happened with software to other industries.
Seems you're starting a *very* interesting thought here! I already
wondered sometimes where we have to leave the example of Free Software
and may be you found (one of) the points.
feeling is that, for example, the right to produce generic medicines and
defense of free software against patent law are two sides of the same
thing; and that the success of either (preferably both) makes the
gpl-society a little more possible - even if there has been no 'hobbyist'
type development on the medical side.
Yes. May be I have to drop the thought that it always needs to be that
type of hobbyist approach we see in Free Software. Of course then
things start to get difficult again because then we don't have a
shining example we just need to look at ;-( . Perhaps this is the
point where Oekonux *really* has to work.
Maybe 'selbstentfaltung' is not the only thing to look for.
Selbstentfaltung is related to freedom, but not identical with it. If we
look for people trying to increase our freedom in an area (eg. freedom
to manufacture/use generic drugs), then it is likely that there will be
some kind of connection with free software. The fact that RMS was in
the Brazil conference this year really surprised me; but I think it's a
sign that this kind of link will grow.
Here the question of the ownership of means of
productions comes into play, which is for sure different between Free
Software (PC) and a medical drug (a research laboratory which lots of
expensive equipment - I guess).
Expense is always the argument used to justify any IP industry ("medicines
take millions to develop" (but in practice most recent new medicines were
developed in universities, with tax money, then given to private
companies); 'operating systems take millions to write" (well, we know all
about that one); "films take millions to produce" (and the more money the
worse they seem to be) etc). I would think that the limitation is more
that medicines have to be guaranteed to be tested. A program that crashes
my x-windows session is annoying; a medicine with similar lack of testing
might be fatal. That means part of the initiative has to come from the
state (ie. people working on it have to be governed by legal rules) not
just from individual chemists.
Hmm... I guess it is actually costly to even develop some new
But what is the cost? If the cost is mainly employing research chemists,
then the cost argument is no more relevant than it was for operating
systems. If the cost is in the chemicals themselves, or mass spectroscopy
etc, then maybe it's more relevant (though there are hobbyists making
their own spectroscopes, too :-)
The question who pays seems less relevant to me. But you're
right if you say, that results produced by state money should become
public property - which was the case in the US if I'm informed right.
BTW: Does any US citizen know about the current situation in this
field and about its history. I heard everything produced by state
money had to be open, but I think that changed not too long ago.
However, gene technology seems to be
pretty cheap :-)-: .
Don't worry, I'm sure they're working at making it more expensive ;-)
I'm not so sure about this - and whether this is a good thing. But I
don't want to start a debate how useful gene technology might be...
Mit Freien Grüßen
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