Open Source development is pretty close to Anarchism. Still, we rely on the courts and government to protect Open Source. What if we were to lose that support, what would the Open Source ecosystem look like then?
Before i begin, let me redefine Anarchism away from the bad taste in your mouth, purely chaotic society where anyone will kill his parents if it means a few bucks. It's really an insult to the decency of mankind to presume anyone would act in such a way. When i refer to anarchism, i refer to a self regulating, self ruling society where the individual decides which rules are important.
I was watching an interview with Eric S. Raymond where the interviewer asked him the million dollar question: "Is Open Source Communism?". His response was extreme disgust, and his argument against this was about the very nature of Communism. Communism forces the individual to share and participate in a single monoculture society, where if you chose not to be a member, you were thrown in the Gulag, shot in the back of the head, and even buried in an unmarked grave. The question was raised around the 'viral' aspect around the GPL, in how it forces the redistributor to retain that license on all modified code. But let's face it, very few people actually want to force people to use the GPL and nothing but the GPL.
Let's take this completely the other direction. Economically, Capitalism is considered the economic polar opposite* of Communism. The idea behind Red Hat is that Open Source makes perfect business sense, because it's been proven to encourage faster economic development than the traditional methods that preceded Open Source development. Capitalism is certainly akin to Anarchism, in that they both encourage a certain free growth, unimpeded by any other limitations. For example, in our society, most capitalistic economies are limited by government regulation, but are otherwise completely subject to the consumer demand.** Capitalism, especially as Open Source moves into it more, relies on a set of organically grown collective agreements between the different corporations. Still, it relies on a level of government regulation and intervention to support and maintain these agreements. For example, corporations rely more than ever on the court systems to enforce trademarks worldwide, because without an overarching court, any individual can use a trademark freely with little retribution. Open Source moves corporations into a space though, where they no longer compete with each other directly, but actually support each other. This is fairly close to an anarchistic economy.
Although Anarchists vary widely on what a post-revolution anarchistic society would look like, there is a consensus that individuals who recognize the value in serving other people's needs will provide the needs selflessly. Issues such as protective militias, police forces, social welfare, care of the sick, production of food, etc.. would all be handled by volunteers. There would be no governmental safety net to fall back on, and a truly independent individual will realize this. Likewise, if the 'community' feels an individual is taking, but not giving back, that person will get an automatically diminished say and respect in the 'society'. Furthermore, the society could choose to find a way to address the issue, or leave it alone. The development of Open Source, initially as a purely volunteer movement, and a shift to a cooperative corporate and volunteer culture really parallels the ideals of many anarchistic thinkers. Individuals and corporations alike have donated countless man-hours, server power, storage and hosting space, and money to do everything the Open Source ecosystem needed.
Open Source succeeded because of its licensing model. I would like to say a set of 'strong' licenses, but no one has really challenged them in court until very recently. Presumably, either they are weak, and we don't know it yet***, or they are so strong that lawyers are afraid to touch it with a 10 foot pole. The licenses are one of the key factors that supported the anarchistic model in a non anarchistic society. The GPL in particular, because of it's 'virility' (sorry, couldn't resist the half pun), has pushed this anarchistic ideal more than anything else. It's license/contract rules force the consumer of GPL licensed software to participate in the anarchism. On the contrary, the BSD license has a key fundamental difference. The rules allow the consumer to release changes under proprietary terms, which lets consumers retain the non anarchistic methods of our society. You could call the GPL non anarchistic, in that it forces the rules on the consumer, but this is simply not true either. The consumer is still fundamentally choosing the software out of free will.
In an anarchistic society, there would be no overarching court system that must be obeyed. If a consumer wanted to rerelease GPL software under another license, the copyright holder would have some alternatives, but none of them include getting the courts to physically stop this person. The copyright holder could convince the offender to cease and desist under a mutual agreement, or he could ask some friends to force him creating ill will. Anarchist argue, of course, that this situation is still fundamentally better, because it encourages people to think more about direct and peaceful confrontation. But here's my question to you, dear Lazyweb reader. This is a bit of a thinking exercise. What would the GPL in a truly anarchistic society work? Without a court to actually enforce the GPL, how would we, the open source developers, convince corporations that Open Source is the way to go? What do we do, when a corporation takes an objectivist point of view, argues that the financial gains outweigh the damages of disrespect, and violates what is essentially now just a Social Contract? What methods do we have to encourage the continued development and momentum of Open Source and Free Software, even when people have a right to do otherwise?
It hit me, that while writing this, this doesn't just have applications in a doom and gloom scenario where some government collapses in our current economic crisis. This could have some very real and practical application, even if the sky doesn't fall. Let's take another thought exercise. Let's say a bunch of high powered and expensive lawyers for Cisco manage to overturn the GPL in courts. What if the government decides not to enforce the GPL, and we lose the ability to enforce our own beloved anarchism? How do we continue the ideals of Free Software and pretty much bluff our way into winning?
* Don't take my word for it, i'm just an academic hack.
** Yes, this oversimplifies things immensely.
*** And let's hope to $deity_or_other that we never get to this point.