Subject: Re: Open letter to those who believe in a right to free software
From: "Karsten M. Self" <>
Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1999 23:00:59 -0700

Stephen J. Turnbull wrote:


> Of course as the papers get written, I'll put them up on a web site
> (I'll let you know), and they'll be intelligible to non-economists (at
> least in outline and with examples) and libre---subject to
> professional journal copyright assignments; I can't avoid that, it's
> my job to submit them for publication.

Just FYI -- look to CNI-Copyright, last week's posts, for some thoughts
on copyright assignments in journal articles.  Archives available, can
post items on request.

> Many thanks to _all_ participants.  I'm sure it looks like I think I
> have all the answers, but I don't, and I know I don't.  But after this
> thread, I have a lot more answers than I did before.  Better yet, I
> have a bunch of new questions!

100% employment policy continues....

> There are of course significant biases is some areas.  I don't really
> think those apply strongly to factors entering the decision to do free
> software.  Some matter a lot to economics, possibly.  A typical
> example is that many people apparently weight losses more than gains
> of the same size.  (I don't see how that applies to free software
> directly, although I can tell some strained stories.)  It turns out
> that these biases are indistinguishable in effect on measurable real-
> world behavior from certain changes in parameters in the standard
> model.  (To the best of my knowledge; I am not trying to claim there
> are none that would force a change in the standard model, I just don't
> know of any, and I was moderately well-informed in the matter and
> would have noticed publication of new ones.)

I gave Ben the same reminder.  There is an anthology of decisionmaking
behavior (individual and group) that I've been meaning to mention for
months now.  I don't have it in front of me now.  Please feel free to
box me 'round the ears if I don't mention the title.  There's much
coverage of issues such as what Stephen mentions above, as well as
others I found highly relevant to how free software operates.

On another tangent, I'd mentioned some work of Ken Arrow to Stephen a
ways back that I thought was relevant.  It's, of course, his
Impossibility Theorem (which is where Ben got tangled up in his response
to this subject -- ST's personal preferences and BT's voting prefs are
different nuts).  But it wasn't what I'd had in mind.  Rather, there's
Garrett Hardin's "mutual coercion, mutually agreed on", which he posits
in his 1968 paper "The Tragedy of the Commons", as a solution to market
failures.  The relevance, IMO, isn't the TotC (free software isn't a
Commons, though it's subject to similar types of market failures), it's
the coercion bit.  The GNU GPL, and similar copylefts, are essentially
coercive instruments.  I'm wondering about the "mutually agreed on" part
of that.  In Hardin's view, it was government (say, taxation,
regulations).  Prevents problems such as the prisoner's dilemma, because
the mutually favorable choice is *mandetory* (assuming that the mutual
agreement can be reached in the first place).

> (2) the assumption that personal consumption of commodities is all
>     that matters.
> This one is a dead duck.  The whole point of freeing your software is
> that you care that other people be able to execute your software and
> derive from your software.
> What does this mean in terms of modeling?  Simply that I do something
> like put the number of people who use your software into your utility
> function, independently of the revenue you may or may not generate
> from it.  Doh, as they say; that wasn't so hard.

Is there a more direct benefit?

Recent example:  I'd spent -- two weeks? -- coding a routine to handle
some sloppy date fields in a program which was translating events data
into episodes.  Plus an earlier stab at the same thing six months prior,
plus a first shot at the whole thing two years ago at another site.  Two
days after I'd completed the work and manually spot checked a sampling
of results, a question appeared on an online forum for someone with
virtually the identical problem (which isn't posted nearly as often as
you'd think it would be).  I posted a response from memory (talk about
internalizing code).  Following a few emails and a phone call, we ironed
out some syntactical errors and matched the code to her data.

What did I get from this?  The thorough code review of some who also had
her SAS on the line, as well as eyeballs belonging to a number of
algorithms mavens who just *love* to pick my code apart -- the review I
wasn't going to get from the programmers at my site (not enough time,
familiarity, expertise, interest, etc....).  My code was vetted and
stood the test.  I felt that *I* was getting the better end of the

More users -- better bug reports, possibly more development, more
interest in integrating a tool with others (more use for the tool).  I
could see a whole host of very selfish reasons for sharing code.

Can Stephen model it though?
> But that's not my goal; my goal is to tell the relevant Senate
> Committee that increasing patent life to 20 years would cost $X
> billion dollars in real economic benefits, broken down as (negative
> cost, ie benefit) increased development of proprietary software, lost
> usage benefits, lost production of rival free and proprietary software
> with $Y billion of estimated usage benefits, and so on.  To figure out
> how much free software there _would_ have been, I need to know how
> hard people are going to work on free software, which comes back to
> those incentives, ie, the arguments in the utility function.


>     kms> The *implications* of the utility function, and its effects
>     kms> on the market, are generally fairly well understood.  But the
>     kms> critical voices here do have a point when they say that
>     kms> economists don't know what makes people tick.
> The point is true, but not relevant to what economics is for.
> Economics is not for persuading people to change their lives.  It is
> for persuading politicians to change social policies.

Um....  <raising hand>  Teacher!!! <climbing on desk>

...what about demonstrating merits of an approach to business

<looking around to see who's scowling at me now...>

> Contrary to what you said, economists _don't_ understand the
> production function, in the same way we don't understand the utility
> function.  We simply relate the input arguments to the output
> arguments as a functional constraint.  We don't know anything about
> what makes it tick---that's what operations researchers and industrial
> engineers do.

Utility is, as it's been presented to me, an atomic entity.  The
production function is, at least at the undergraduate level, further
decomposed to capital + labor (P= f( K, L )).  ...or is that just the
analog of substitution functions in a utility curve?  I'm going to posit
that production functions are inherently simpler and more uniform than
utility functions (for the non-economists:  utility is what you're all
busy maximizing -- or at least satisficing, right now).  I'll shut up
now, I've confused myself.  I think....

Karsten M. Self (
    What part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?

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