Software models for Cooperatives

One of the 7 internationally recognized principles of the co-operative movement is co-operation between co-operatives. This has been interpreted within the co-operative housing movement to encourage purchasing insurance services from the Cooperators, financial services from Credit Unions, and the purchasing of products and services first from co-operatively managed businesses. While these decisions come quite easy for these services, this standard has not applied to computer hardware and software.

As an Internet consultant living in a housing co-operative, I would like to draw some comparisons between two movements that I am involved in: the co-operative, and the Open-Source computing movements. There are two major ways to compare the co-operative model for an enterprise and the Open-Source model for software. The first is to look at how the Open-Source model and a co-operative software business can aid each other, and the second is to compare the philosophies of the two movements.

I will first start by describing these two movements:


The best place to start when describing Co-operatives is to look at how the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a co-op:
A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
From this definition follows their values and 7 principles of the co-operative movement, and I will use these 7 principles in making the comparison to the Open-Source movement.

Co-operatives come in many forms. Many people are now becoming familiar with co-op housing where each person living in a dwelling is a member of the co-op. The co-op as a whole then owns the homes, and through the members manages this shared resource.

Other co-operatives exist in areas such as agriculture, banking, consumer (eg: Ontario Natural Food Co-op and the Mountain Equipment Co-op), energy, fisheries, insurance and others. Some are workers co-ops formed to give the people who work at a company more democratic control of that organizations, and others are for managing some other shared resource.

Open-Source software

The Open-Source software movement is one which looks at computer software as being information that should be shared, rather than as an entity that should be owned, restricted and made scarce. There are many industries that look at information as being shared, with lawyers, teachers, and many other professionals falling into these industries. The most commonly understood comparison is the one made to lawyers.
The Open-Source movement ..."changes the model of software development and distribution to one much like the model our Legal system and its industry uses. If a lawyer designs an argument that wins his case in front of the supreme court his reward is not only the fees his client pays him but also the additional clients that his achievement attracts to his practice. The ``argument'' he used becomes available for any other lawyer to use without restriction, and in fact becomes part of our collective legal heritage." (RedHat Software, a company that produces value-added Linux distributions).

With agreements like the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) aside, it is widely understood that laws work best when they are not kept secret from the general public that are expected to make use of them. There are entire industries set up to help manage, teach, change and use laws, and none of these expect the laws to be kept a secret or thought of as 'property'. Nobody would ever suggest that teachers, lawyers, politicians or lobby groups are poor, but there has often been the equally unusual suggestion that the software industry would collapse if software producers were not able to claim exclusive property-like rights for their information.

If I were to tell you the by-laws of the housing co-op that I live in, the co-op would not treat that as theft, but as education even though it took considerable time for our co-op to develop those by-laws. On the other hand, if I shared a piece of software with you that was produced in the secret-source method, you can get charged with breaking the law and treated as if you had stolen a physical item of equal value (IE: A 0 piece of software or a 0 stereo are considered similar).

If I give you my stereo I no longer have it and thus cannot use it. On the other hand, if I tell you some information, I will still know it and can continue to use this information. This clearly distinguishes information from physical items, and thus the comparisons to property do not make sense.

There is a growing amount of computer software being developed under this more progressive way of looking at software. I run a series of resources on the Internet, all through Open-Source software.

Comparing the movements

One of the effects of the Secret-Source software models (IE: The model which treats software as an privately owned entity) is the tendency towards large centralized software systems. In order to develop software for a given software environment, you end up needing to sign agreements with other software vendors (such as those who claim ownership to the Operating System), and lose much of the autonomy and independence which is a cornerstone of the co-operative movement.

The Open-Source model, on the other hand, easily allows co-operative and non-cooperative based software organizations to co-exist, and even share information between each other. Since there are no agreements or dependencies with outside organizations, and the cost for startup is minimal, the Open-Source model lends itself well to helping the establishment of software cooperatives for all aspects of software from production, to distribution, to training or to consulting.

While the Open-Source model helps make creating software co-operatives easier, my interest has been more in how the philosophies of the two movements compare even outside of the software industry. Part of the culture of being part of a housing co-operative is the feeling of community and the willingness to share with your neighbor.

With my computing experience I have often been called upon to help another co-operator with some computing problem. The barrier that I come up against most often is one where, depending on the computing platform the person uses, I am not able to share information or software with my neighbor both because the knowledge on how to use the software might be vendor specific, or the information my neighbor needs is in the form of additional software which (if I had any Secret-Source software) I could not legally share with them.

I want to encourage co-operatives to adopt, wherever possible, software developed in a model where some of the same values as the co-operative movement are possible. Recognizing that it will take time to move the industry to this model, and that some will never embrace this way of thinking of software, you can still help by encouraging Secret-Source based vendors to support Open-Source platforms. I often ask application software developers offering software for the co-op sector to consider making versions available for Open-Source platforms such as Linux.

I will make use of the well defined values and the 7 principles of the Co-operative movement to make more direct comparisons.

1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Nothing in the Open-Source movement forces you to be a member. It is even possible to make use of a mixed software environment where some software is Open-Source while other software is not. As an example, many users of the Linux operating System (An Open-Source alternative to MS-Windows, MacOS, etc) have what are called "Dual Boot" systems where they can choose which operating system to use when they turn on their computers, allowing them to use applications made available in both environment. In addition to this, there are Secret-Source programs such as Corel WordPerfect which one can buy and run on a computer running the Linux Operating System.

2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control
When information is not owned, no external control mechanism needs to exist. There is nothing more democratic than a system where anyone is able to share any information they wish. Majority rule is obvious in that information and ideas that are the most interesting end up being known by the most people, while poor ideas tend not to be shared. This works just as well for software as it does for ideas on any other subject.

The Internet itself has been a tool very related to the Open-Source movement. It was the Internet which facilitated the large cooperative software development environment which allowed software such as the Linux Operating System to be created. When looking at the Internet, what is especially interesting to the Co-operative Movement is that the Net's structure is non hierarchical and its growth decided by individual participants, which encourages democratic participation. The Net also increases democratic participation by allowing geographically dispersed groups to actively participate in on-line fora, share information within minutes and suggest amendments or correct draft documents almost instantaneously.

3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation
Unlike resource-based co-operatives, information (software) is not scarce and does not need to be managed in the same way, and relies more on experience, knowledge and training than it does in monetary issues.

4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence
As discussed above, a quick look at the Secret-Source model for software you will show that individual users and software producers are often dependent on Transnational information owners (Software vendors/etc).

5th Principle: Education, Training and Information
Once software can be shared, the whole area of Education, Training and software exchange as part of a co-operative becomes possible. Creating a new software tool to be used in the Co-op becomes part of participation within the co-op.

6th Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives
This model lends itself to the creation of small software-producing and supporting co-operatives, and other co-operatives should be encouraged to support this model in order to support the easier creation of these co-operatives.

Once one co-operative has a software tool, they are then able to share this with other co-operatives and thus further this goal just as they are able to share other information generated within their co-operative.

7th Principle: Concern for Community
Open-Source brings software development and control back down to the level where a small community-based group can produce solutions in-house without being dependent on or controlled by external organizations. Open-Source encourages information/software sharing, and does not treat this sharing as theft, but as growth and education.

References and links:
Russell McOrmond is on the Board of Directors for Co-op Voisins, and the delegate to the Co-op Housing Federation of Canada (CHFC) and the Co-op Housing ASsociation of Eastern Ontario (CHASEO).

This article was written in September 1999. Links were updated Feb 26 2002.