Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source

February 12, 2009

The production of non-proprietary software, more commonly known as free/libre and open-source software (FLOSS), has taken parts of the academic, activist and governmental world by storm. It has not only forced an intellectual reassessment of theories of human nature and creativity that help justify the expansion of intellectual property regimes, but it has also inspired academics, journalists and activists to craft similar endeavours.

David Berry, mindful of these developments, has written a persuasive account on the politics of copyleft and open source. Copy, Rip, Burn stands apart from its cohort because of its overtly critical bent. Berry offers a rich discursive analysis of FLOSS, but also situates it within the backdrop of capitalist forces that ultimately blunt, he argues, its radical potential. Within this general frame, he also builds - and this is the intellectual heart of his book - a typology drawn from the Roman legal system, which he uses to explode the binaries between private/public and property/commons commonly used to describe FLOSS. Given Berry's fresh intellectual contribution, this book is a must-read for any scholar or activist interested either in FLOSS or the general politics of IP regulation.

Because political economy is so integral to his otherwise discursive analysis, Berry assesses in broad strokes the state of capitalism and the information society. As the book progresses, he narrows his focus to offer a genealogy of the concept of property, using sources that range from John Locke to the critical theorists of empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Not content with mere description, he also builds the following typology to reclassify the meaning of and relationship between property and public things: res nullis (things belonging to no one); res private (private things); res publica (public things); res universitatis (things belonging to a group); res communes (common things that cannot be subject to ownership); res imperium (things owned in the international arena); and res divini juris (things under the jurisdiction of the gods). He continues to deploy these categories normatively to describe FLOSS (it is an example of res universitatis, he rightly insists) but he also uses them prescriptively (to ask, for example, how FLOSS or the commons can scale to become res imperium).

The final three chapters address FLOSS proper. Berry provides an illuminating analysis, again discursive in nature, on the ethical differences between free software and its ostensibly non-ideological counterpart, open-source software. The terms "free and open", while distinct, are often paired together, in part because they designate the same alternative licences and collaborative methodologies but differ in their moral orientation and linguistic framing. Berry situates free software within an Enlightenment moral sensibility that integrates an overt commitment to rights and technical progress, and seeks to build a commonweal. Open source, on the other hand, articulates its project in strictly rational and utilitarian terms whose sensibility is hyper-individualist and that overtly seeks recognition and integration within the corporate sector.

While distinguishing these two is an important intellectual exercise (and Berry notes that in practice the line between them is not so clearly defined), he might have mentioned that they are still part of the same general liberal project, albeit positioned at different ends of the liberal spectrum, one articulating communitarian ethics and the other a libertarian sensibility.

Berry ends with a passionate political assessment. Since FLOSS contains only a "kernel of radicalism", he calls for a more expansive politics that would exceed the commitment to productive autonomy that forms the political warp and woof of this domain, and proposes a "re-enchantment of the commons" whereby an international body such as the United Nations could act as a steward of shared resources. While in theory this project is laudable, in practice, given the unimpressive track record of international bodies in implementing and upholding treaties, it may not be the most feasible or pragmatic route for a radical politics. Instead, one might discuss and expand upon the existing, vibrant and extremely politicised arena of technology activism, which receives very little mention in this book.

Since the protests in 1999 in Seattle at the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference, radical technology collectives have mushroomed around the world (although they are concentrated in North America, Europe and Latin America). They have excavated and made public the "radical kernel" of free software and, most important, they have helped underwrite a vibrant global social justice movement. Given Berry's stated desire to create a technological commons that works independent of the circuits of capital (and in fact might challenge or limit it), this might have been a productive area of analytical inquiry to follow.

This book is theoretically incisive. While it does not provide a window into the lived reality of FLOSS, nor a sense of how programmers co-ordinate technical or social production, what it does well is provide a new intellectual history and understanding of FLOSS. Most significantly, it offers analytical categories that I suspect will be adopted by advocates and academics alike to refine their understanding of how to build and advocate for things, objects and resources that should be common to all.

Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source

By David M. Berry. Pluto Press, 2pp, £50.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780745324159 and 4142. Published 20 September 2008

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