Incorporating the Commons: A Political Economic Analysis of Corporate Involvement in Free and Open Source Software
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Free (libre) and open source software (FLOSS) emerged in the 1980s as a radical alternative to proprietary software. Fighting back against what FLOSS enthusiasts viewed as overly restrictive intellectual property protections placed on proprietary software, FLOSS was designed with the intent of granting users the right to study, modify, adapt, or otherwise tinker with the source code of software. As such, FLOSS users were able to collaborate in producing software that could be distributed freely and widely to others, who could, in turn, make changes to the software. As FLOSS projects grew in popularity, the productive process was spread throughout a broad network of distributed users, all of whom could work on the code. The result of this process was the creation of robust, effective, and efficient forms of software that could compete with those offered by large software companies. Increasingly, however, some of those large software companies became involved in the development of FLOSS projects. On its face, this may seem to be a contradiction of interests. Why would a for-profit company invest in the development of software that is made freely available for others to use? This is the contradiction that lies at the heart of this research project. More specifically, this project looks at the dynamics that exist between communities of FLOSS developers and the corporations that are involved in or make use of their projects. Working from a critical political economy perspective, this study complicates theories of the commons and commons-based peer production by illustrating how FLOSS processes and products are being incorporated into broader corporate structures and strategies. The three case studies presented - Red Hat, Microsoft, and Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems - exemplify different elements of this dynamic. Red Hat provides an example of how a company that relies exclusively on free software can be turned into a profitable business. The Microsoft case demonstrates why the company has undergone a transition from vehement opposition to FLOSS toward a more supportive position. Finally, Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems demonstrates how FLOSS communities cope with changing ownership structures and unwanted corporate interference into their projects.