Conflict in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Corporate Involvement in Free and Open Source Software

Benjamin J. Birkinbine


Free (libre) and open source software (FLOSS) gives users the right to study, modify, adapt, or improve upon software by granting access to the source code. Proprietary software, on the other hand, relies on restricting certain uses of software to protect the marketability of intellectual property. From its beginnings in the 1980s, FLOSS has provided a radical alternative to proprietary software and is generally heralded as one of the triumphs of commons-based peer production. However, corporations are becoming increasingly involved in FLOSS projects, which would seem to be a clash of interests. In this paper, I argue that the increasing corporate involvement in FLOSS projects potentially threatens the radical potential of FLOSS by directing commons-based development toward corporate goals. To date, the FLOSS community has been able to leverage its collective labor power to counteract such corporate maneuvering. This type of collective action relies on a class consciousness among software laborers that needs to be maintained if these strategies are to remain effective. To illustrate how these dynamics operate within the software industry, I focus on the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle and its consequences for FLOSS development.


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