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From Adam Smith to Open Source

TORONTO -- In 1776, the British economist Adam Smith theorized in "The Wealth of Nations" that "invisible hand" market forces are the primary influences in a free market economy.

Does the economic model of the world, as predicted by Smith over 228 years ago, apply to the modern concept of free and open source software?

For theorists and tech luminaries gathered at the Open Source and Free Software conference held at the University of Toronto this week, that was an open question as they debated concepts and controversies with the growth of open source software.

To be sure, this was not a business conference, but rather an intellectual playing field where academics and the learned alike bantered core philosophies, rhetoric and history, as opposed to code or discussions about the return on investment of Linux.

Attendees discussed topics ranging from the practical to the esoteric. At times, they were full of fiery discourse with regard to the grandiose aspirations to which the free and open source movements aspire, as well as what some called the "evils" of proprietary software and associated patents.

"Whoever controls software, controls life," said Eben Moglen of Columbia University and the Free Software Foundation during his panel discussion. "Well, it had better be us. That's the real political meaning of the free software movement. Civil freedom in the 21st century requires human beings to retain control over the technological environment that surrounds them."

Some of the highlights of the three-day event included discussions such as "Free and Open Source Software as a Social Movement," which was paneled by Moglen and Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web server, and "The Laws and Politics of Open Source," which included theorists from New York University, Stanford University, Cambridge University and the University of California at Berkley.

The most volatile panel discussion was the open source business model, which included Red Hat founder Bob Young, Matt Asay of Novell and Jason Matusow of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative. Many attendants challenged Microsoft's participation at the conference because of the company's objections to the core license of the free and open source movement.

As for the Adam Smith question, Red Hat founder Bob Young connected the dots between the 200-year-old theories of Adam Smith and the modern approach to customer management.

"The Adam Smith view of the world is that a whole bunch of self-centered, selfish human beings, working in their own vested self-interest, can make the world a better place faster than the most benevolent king," Young told the audience.

"What intrigued me the most was, if you look after your customers in such a way that you get really, really wealthy, you will make the world a better place," Young said.

The Internet is a manifestation of the validity of Adam Smith's theories, as is the growth of Linux, itself, Young argued. The way in which the Internet works and was created is as a distributed system to which multiple self-interests contributed. This resulted in something that was better than any one individual company or government could have ever created.

Operating-system adoption is driven by the availability of applications, according to Young, which is something that, in early days of its existence, Linux did not have. That said, he added, it was the Internet, itself, with applications like the Apache Web Server, DNS and Sendmail -- all free and open source endeavors -- that serve as further proof of Adam Smith's theory is applied to the growth of the free and open source software movement.

"The Internet was the killer app that drove the adoption of Linux," said Young.

Many in the free and open source community chided Red Hat about its for-profit model, Young recalled during the address, particularly since so much of the community is based on non-profit foundations.

Again, Young recalled the theories of Adam Smith for his justification. "Good businesses will deliver more value to society than any non-profit will. The profit motivation is actually a very good one; it makes sure we're delivering real value to our customers."