Employee Owned Source Code - A Response to a Criticism

One of the fun things about starting something new is watching the idea begin to show up in the search engines and start to attract some folks who are energized and enthused by the idea. Of course, if your idea is at all controversial -- which is often the case for ideas that haven't been worn out yet -- then you're also likely to attract a detractor or two, especially on the Internet, where detracting from the efforts of others is a fairly well documented art form.

I ran across such an artist recently when someone who pays attention to his work asked me what I thought of what he wrote about CodeSolid, so I dutifully clicked through to his critique of my business. It was clear right away that I wouldn't have time to respond in depth or even read the whole thing, so I just politely said it was nice of him to spend so much time writing about my business model, and left it at that.

In this article I'd like to respond in a bit more depth, so I'll be quoting at length.

He writes:

Once in a while, we are confronted by initiatives which elicit contrary feelings, especially if they come from what you consider as ‘your own side’.

An example of this would be my perplexity towards encountering CodeSolid and their proposal for Employee-Owned Source Code, originating as it does from a cooperative, which Nathan Schneider considers to be a platform cooperative. As he writes about them in a Facebook exchange:

“ I do view it as a platform cooperative because a) ownership is shared through the company's online platform, not behind it (as in a tech worker cooperative); b) membership is open to whoever contributes; c) governance is handled according to one-person-one-vote.”

So this guy, whom I'll be calling Michel Bauwens since that's his name, found out that I'm a platform co-operative on Facebook from another guy, named Nathan Schneider. I was never part of that original Facebook exchange, because I spend even less time on Facebook than I do on Twitter, but apparently these two guys between the two of them (or some other folks -- I haven't seen the original exchange) decided that CodeSolid is a Platform Cooperative. Now if you'd asked me if CodeSolid is a Platform Cooperative I would have said "No, of course not, we're an employee owned SaaS software development company."

So beginning with the premise that CodeSolid is a duck, which Michel Bauwens deduced from a guy on Facebook saying it's a duck, Michel will next turn his journalistic prowess to a detailed complaint that the duck lacks wings and a beak and the ability to glide gracefully on water.

But wait a minute, first we have to give the duck the benefit of the doubt that it's not really a duck:

Let me note that it is not clear to me that this is actually the case; I read the description as being a closed cooperative shop. The following critique has been inspired by this particular example, but it is not a critique of Codesolid itself, and we are very interested in their opinion and feedback.

So here is a labor initiative based on shared property, we should rejoice right?

OK, now I'm lost. First CodeSolid was a duck, and as a duck I was eliciting contrary feelings because I was on their side (presumably Bauwens and Schneider are platform cooperatives, or ducks of some kind). But to given Mr. Bauwens his due, he did read our web site and thus learned that we're a "closed cooperative shop". Awesome. "Closed source" cooperative shop would be somewhat more accurate, but good enough.

Most cooperatives hate closed source, I know. I was a part of the Tech Coop mailing list for awhile, and in one of the organizational meetings they had, someone suggested the group not use Google hangouts to meet -- in spite of the fact that it's free and well executed, because it "required members to install proprietary software" on their machines. Oh, the horror. Oh, the humanity. Proprietary software.

In Bauwens' critique, closed source is so awful that CodeSolid is attacked fairly personally and accused of "a number of ethical challenges". Well, OK, it's not really CodeSolid. Bauwens says: "The following critique has been inspired by this particular example, but it is not a critique of Codesolid itself, and we are very interested in their opinion and feedback." OK, so Bauwens is not critiquing CodeSolid itself, just some hypothetical other company that invented Employee Owned Source Code. See Why Employee Owned Source Code Is Not (Yet) A Thing. So someone's getting criticized, even if we're not exactly sure who, so let's not be shy about quoting the criticism. When I respond, I'll respond as though they were criticisms of CodeSolid, and not some hypothetical evil company. To the extent I'm evil, I only know how to do so if I'm actually there. But metaphysics aside, lets see the criticisms:

Working with closed proprietary software has indeed a number of ethical challenges:
  • the first is that you are deliberately withholding useful knowledge from humanity, and depending on the criticality of your sector, that could be a major problem (think of how renewable energy was set back for 30 years by the patenting, buy-out, and closures of companies in the 1970s).
  • second is that it aligns you with legal and technical repression, since abundant resources can only be made artificially scarce at that price; this is certainly uncomfortable for ‘progressive’ entities
  • third, it aligns you with liberal ideology, i.e. the belief that private selfish behaviour, even in a collective form, will automatically general [sic] public benefit, instead of explicitly aligning yourself with social and environmental goals
  • fourth, it aligns you exclusively with an exchange-driven economy, instead of a use-value driven economy.
  • fifth, by charging rent from a abundant resource, you align yourself to a game of the democratisation of rent extraction, rather than changing the rules of an unequal and iniquitous social and economic system; the only different is that you do this as a collective owner rather than individual shareholders. Granted, that is of course a big difference.

Let's take these one by one.

  • Wow, really? We're "deliberately withholding useful knowledge from humanity"? No, actually we're not. How to write a time and billing application is not something nobody knows how to do. Lots of people will do it before and after us. More generally, you store data in a database, and you have these web servers, see, and people send data to you over http. What we're not doing is letting some guy on the Internet who read some other guy on the Internet who said we're a platform co-operative put his price on our labor.
  • Secondly we're apparently "align[ed] with legal and technical repression". Well, that does sound like I'm a pretty rotten guy, but even if it's true, it doesn't seem that I'm very good at it. As far as I know I'm not repressing anyone. You want to compete with me and go write a time and billing app and that's completely free and give it away -- knock yourself out. In fact, you don't have to -- people have already done it. Here, let me Google that for you.
  • "Third, it aligns you with liberal ideology, i.e. the belief that private selfish behaviour, even in a collective form, will automatically general public benefit, instead of explicitly aligning yourself with social and environmental goals". Let me be clear. We're not trying to generate "public benefit" in some abstract sense, what we're producing is time and billing software for resale. (Or rather, that's what we're producing when we're not responding to some guy on the Internet.) Our customers will get high quality software at a fair price, or our business will fail. Our employee owners will get a good job with a share in the direction of the company and be paid according to the effort and time contributed.
  • "Fourth, it aligns you exclusively with an exchange-driven economy, instead of a use-value driven economy." OK, now you're just stringing words together to get an extra bullet point, but if you're saying we're hoping to exchange software for money, that's exactly correct, but as criticisms go it's rather banal.
  • "Fifth ... you align yourself to a game of the democratisation of rent extraction, rather than changing the rules of an unequal and iniquitous social and economic system." Now, insofar as that can be understood at all, it's just wrong. The rules of the equal and iniquitous social and economic system dictate that Bill Gates makes countless billions, and the software developers who work for him make a very decent living indeed compared to many in the disappearing middle class, but they still make a lot less than he makes. I still play by those rules, not at Microsoft but for some other capitalists -- where I make a decent living as a software developer. At night I invest my time in CodeSolid to play by a different set of rules, where in the short term I'm not being paid anything, but in the long term I hope to develop software with a small group of programmers that will support us nicely.

Well, there's a lot more to Michel Bauwens' article, such as the idea that open source software is hypercompetitive. Now clearly this is another profession of faith rather than something approaching a fact, because every shop I've ever worked in was a Windows shop, even though as a developer I enjoy Linux at home. And no, this is not just anecdotal. Take a look at netmarketshare, for example, and note the huge disparity in market share between the top two closed source OSes, the various flavors of Windows and Mac OS, and Linux. If 1.71% of the total market share is "hypercompetitive", perhaps CodeSolid really is a duck after all.

One particularly egregious bit of nonsense is this: "Companies like Microsoft now give their Windows 10 software for free, not because they are kind-hearted, but because they realized it was a lost battle." First of all, Windows 10 -- Windows anything -- is not open source. Secondly, they're not giving away Windows 10 for free, they're giving users of Windows 7 and 8 a free upgrade for a limited time. If you want a new copy of Windows 10, you're still going to have to pay. Next, as we showed before, as far as market share goes, they're not losing the battle at all, they're winning it. According to at least one trusted Microsoft watcher, CNET, "The move is likely designed to convince consumers that Windows is worth the effort. Windows 10 is an attempt to wipe the slate clean after missteps with Windows 8, including a new start menu that attracted complaints from PC users, who sorely missed the traditional menu." Other commenters have made the case that Microsoft is hoping to maintain it's dominance over developer mindshare.

Bauwens does make the point that open source software is hypercooperative, and I do agree with him there. My hope and work are dedicated to the idea that we can borrow the cooperative nature of open source with the democratic nature of a worker cooperative to offer products of real value to real buyers. We're a closed source cooperative looking for developers who want to work on projects with other developers with the intention of making money doing it. If you're just interested in lobbing rotten fruit over TCP/IP, you'll forgive me if I throw it back.


Written by John Lockwood in misc on Sat 13 February 2016.