Software Freedom/Information

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The goal of this section is prompt students to consider the nature of information and the nature of software as an information good. The goal is also to help students realize that there is a fundamental difference between informational and material goods—namely, the former can be reproduced at zero marginal cost. It will also introduce the concepts of "ownership" and control of information and prompt students to reflect on these ideas.

Explorations and Activities[edit]

This section may be well served by the Software Freedom/Information Goods Activity.

Alternatively, the following activities or explorations might help the students explore and discover the key concepts in this section. Each is framed in terms of the key questions it raises.

Exploration: Discovering Immateriality[edit]

This is a discussion that prompts students to suggest, compare and contrast the production of a single good that is material with information goods that are purely immaterial.

Possible material goods include a widget, sweater, or vegetable. Possible immaterial goods might include a song, a melody, or a rumor. Students should feel free to suggest possible goods.

Students should discuss or write the process necessary to create that both types of good. Students should then be prompted to describe what happens when they give a copy of their creation to a friend. They should then be asked to reflect on this everyday action. Questions raised might include:

  • How does the process of reproduction differ between the types of goods?
  • How do things change with the second, third, forth, or one millionth copy?

Students should be asked to brainstorm and discuss a variety of related issues to the immaterial nature of their immaterial good and the way it was copied. Important issues might include:

  • How do information goods differ from other types of goods?
  • In what ways do the unique qualities of information make it more difficult to control?
  • Is a book information or material? What about a CD? (Be sure to make a distinction between the book/CD itself and what it contains.)
  • What else can students do that exhibit the costless reproducibility of information?

Exploration: Information Ownership and Transgression[edit]

An exploration or discussion around the idea of "transgressions" of ownership in material and immaterial goods.

If students are familiar with MP3, DIVX, software piracy, etc., these may each provide useful examples to seed a discussion. A good way to enter this discussion may be to bring up these examples.

Keys questions for discussion might include:

  • How does the definition of "stealing" differ in the context of an MP3 and a CD or record?
  • How does this connect to software? What is software piracy? How do students feel about it?
  • In what ways is information "owned"? How do students feel about this? Is it good or bad? Perhaps a debate of some sort would be an appropriate activity at this stage.
  • Why are libraries legal? Why don't entirely digital libraries exist?

Key Concepts[edit]

Students could walk away from this section with:

  • An understanding of information as an immaterial good and the impact of this on the cost of reproduction and distribution.
  • Knowledge of the problems, real and potential, economic and otherwise, introduced by valuable goods that can be reproduced at zero-marginal cost.
  • Some steps toward thinking about the ethical implication of regulating information production.

Additional Readings[edit]

The following readings help frame the questions addressed in this section although all, with the possible exception of Stallman's, may be inappropriate or unnecessary for students unless they express interest in this concept and want to read more.