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Software Freedom as Social Justice. The Open Source Software Movement and Information Control

John L. Sullivan

The Internet Age has brought with it unprecedented access to textual, audio, and audiovisual information via networked computers. While computer software manufacturers and traditional media corporations profited tremendously from these new technologies, they almost immediately began forms of legal pushback against rearguard actions by consumers who attempted to expand the availability of information in ways that threatened copyright and other forms of intellectual property. The initial rise of distribution software such as Napster and Gnutella in the late 1990s, for instance, allowed consumers to freely distribute copyrighted music and posed a major threat to the recorded music industry before these sites were ultimately disbanded or transformed into legitimate music sellers as a result of court action. These early battles between computer or audiovisual media companies and consumers were symptomatic of the challenges to traditional notions of intellectual property in an era of digitalization and media convergence.

In the shadow of these high-profile battles over information distribution via computer networks, a small group of dedicated computer programmers and technology enthusiasts have been bypassing the limitations of proprietary information systems by rewriting those systems to fit their own needs. Beneath the radar of the mainstream media, in the pages of technology-oriented periodicals, online blogs, and Internet chat rooms, a group of libertarian-minded programmers have joined a debate about how to short-circuit the rising tide of closed, proprietary computer code that administers the functions of computers and their interactions in cyberspace.1 The free, open source software (FOSS) movement has countered the market dominance of corporations like Microsoft and Apple by developing and encouraging the distribution of alternatives to these closed systems. Some of the most successful efforts of this movement have been a rival computer operating system (Linux) and other open source software alternatives that are distributed freely over the Internet.

This chapter provides a brief overview of the FOSS movement, focusing specially on the development of the Linux operating system in the 1990s and the creation of a new copyright regime to prevent the privatization and corporatization of this new operating system. I argue that the freedom to access, manipulate, and distribute information is, at its core, a social justice issue. While posing a direct challenge to existing copyright regimes through its emphasis on the commons, open source software development also marks a profound shift away from the dominant mode of capital accumulation toward new modes of cultural production that emphasize collaboration and communal property ownership. The production of this software by “hackers”—individuals who write computer programs and other code and who are outsiders to institutionalized and corporatized forms of software production—also offers a glimpse into a new form of cultural production that exists outside of the boundaries of the wage labor system. Finally, this push for software freedom is beginning to dovetail with larger movements for free culture and electronic privacy, suggesting the emergence of a larger umbrella movement for cultural and software freedom on the horizon.

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