This article by Mike Cornall was originally posted to on 27-Feb-1999, in response to a discussion in which some people claimed that the GPL somehow promoted or embodied Socialist ideals. It is reproduced here by Mike's permission, and with minor editing that he requested.

The GPL is Capitalist, not Socialist

The popular understanding of Capitalism has become so corrupted, it's hard to discuss it intelligently anymore. This was largely done on purpose (which is not to say there is a conscious plan involved) by the major segments of society whose power and money would be threatened by true Capitalism, including Politicians, University Professors, Union Leaders, Bankers, and Big (so-called) Businessmen. Despite what you have heard, Capitalism is not about international money-changing, nor can it be characterized by pointing to the problems created by the huge government-regulated, government-controlled stock market and public corporations.

Capitalism is about private ownership of Capital. The central point is the private ownership, which is closely linked to freedom. This means that each person is entitled to (i.e. owns) the results of his own work (unless he sells it or trades it for pay), and the definition of ownership is that you get to say what can or cannot be done with your property.

The GPL is a license setting down the wishes of the creators of GNU and other OSS software. We expect those wishes to be honored. We even expect the courts to enforce the license. This implies that the creators have a legal right to set the rules for their creation. That, in turn, implies ownership (even if the ownership is subsequently transferred to the public), which is a Capitalist concept, whether some OSS-ers think so or not.

Under Socialism, there is no ownership. Everything is shared by society, for the good of the people (or the state). Of course, there still needs to be rules to manage the sharing, otherwise, what's to stop me and my guests from using up the entire world's supply of Truffles and Dom Perignon. Thus, whenever Socialism is implemented, it breaks down into Ownership of Everything by the Government.

Under Socialism, the GPL would be ignored, since it only represents the wishes of a few private individuals. Under Socialism, the Government could decide that it was in the best interest of society that some companies (say those located in Redmond) be allowed to provide custom versions, and binaries only, and there would be nothing you could say about it. Socialism would destroy the GPL and the OSS community.

If you really want a better understanding of Capitalism, read Milton Friedman's Free To Choose. It's insightful, entertaining, and written for the general public. For the more philosophically inclined, I would also suggest Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

To summarize: If you support the GPL, then you must support Capitalism, because that's the only system under which the GPL could exist.

Back to Eric's home page

Last updated February 28, 1999

Article copyright 1999 Mike Cornall.
Web page copyright 1999 Eric Smith.

Valid HTML 3.2! check now