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Free Software Reading Group

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This is the homepage for a reading group and course on free and open source software being offered by the Media, Arts and Sciences program during Fall 2008.

We will have six meetings this term. Information is subject to change but the current plan is:

  1. October 6, 6:00 PM - E15-443A: History and primary materials
  2. October 19, 1:00 PM - E15-001/"The Cube": Background and foundational readings
  3. November 3, 6:00 PM - E15-443A: Philosophical perspectives
  4. Novermber 17, 6:00 PM - E15-443A: Anthropological perspectives (Part 1)
  5. December 1, 6:00 PM - E15-443A: Economic/econometric perspectives
  6. December 15, 6:00 PM - E15-443A: Final Session

Basic Facts

The reading group will try to showcase a number of perspective on free and open source software. The first session will be history and primary materials to introduce people to the history and important concepts and definition of free software and open source. The second meeting will try to help ground further reading through important "outside" sources that might help illuminate the phenomena. The rest of the reading group will be focused on analysis and descriptions of free and open source software artifacts, processes, ideas, and communities that can roughly be divided into more anthropological or ethnographic analyses, more economic and econometric analyses, and more philosophical analyses.
Who should participate?
Participation is open to anyone affiliated with MIT. The reading group will be ideal for people who have heard about, used or developed free and open source software and are interested in learning about how it works. For Media Lab students, it will be ideal for people who are applying an "open source model" in one of their own projects.
Time Comittment
The readings aim to be approximately one book or equivalent in articles per session or roughly one book every other week. The sessions will meet for between 1.5 and 2 hours. Those taking the course for credit should also expect to produce 500-1000 word response papers for each session.
Chris Csíkszentmihályi (Professor, MAS)
Benjamin Mako Hill (PhD Candidate, Sloan; Fellow, C4FCM; Director, FSF)
Meeting Time
We meet every other Monday at 18:00.
Course Credit
The reading group can be taken for 6-units of course credit. Students participating in the reading group for credit will be expected to produce a 500-1000 word response papers to the readings. These responses will be hosted on this wiki as a way of helping build up knowledge about the topics and issues covered. There will be no final project. Students should contact Chris to add the class before the MIT add deadline on October 3rd.

If you questions, concerns, or issues, please contact Benjamin Mako Hill at

Proposed Sessions

These sessions and the readings are subject in to change. In many cases, we'll be reading only a subsection each week.

Session 1: History and primary materials

Introductory Notes
The first three are probably the most important primary documents in the history of free and open source software. Everyone should read these -- or read them again! Steven Levy's book is a journalist take and is short and readable. If you are interested in more context (reading just the epilogue can be weird) you can read the first and second chapters on the web. The final book is a document for free software developers that tries to distill advice on project management and "how things get done." This is mostly for people who have already read the first three. If you are reading the first three, don't feel bad about skipping this.

Stallman, R. 2002. “The Free Software Definition.” Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman”, Boston: GNU.   Available online.

Stallman, Richard M. 2002. “The GNU Manifesto.” P. 224 in Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, edited by Joshua Gay. Free Software Foundation.   Available online.

Raymond, Eric S. 1999. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. edited by Tim O'Reilly. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly and Associates.   Available online.

Levy, Steven. 2001. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Updated. Penguin (Non-Classics).   (Just the Epilog -- See email for copy.)

Fogel, Karl. 2005. Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project. O'Reilly Media, Inc.   Available online (Note: This text is optional but please skim the book if possible -- especially if you're familiar with the other texts.)

Session 2: Background and foundational readings

Hesse, Carla. 2002. “The rise of intellectual property, 700 B.C.-A.D. 2000: An idea in the balance.” Daedalus 131:26.   [1]

Mauss, Marcel. 2002. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge Classics.   [2]

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin Press HC, The.   (Chapter: “Failure For Free”) [3]

Winner, Langdon. 1988. "Do Artifacts have Politics." The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University Of Chicago Press.   [4]

Session 3: Philosophical perspectives

Notes on the Readings
For Chopra and Dexter, please read the introduction and chapters 3 and 5; If you have time, please also take a look at chapter 1 but feel free to skip the history in the first half. Chapter 5 builds on Donna Haraway's concept of the "cyborg." If you are completely confused, try reading Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. If you are then even more confused, come to reading group and we'll talk about it. The Meretz, Merten, and Seaman are from a group called Project Oekonux.

Chopra, Samir, and Scott Dexter. 2007. Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software. 1st ed. Routledge.   [5]

Feller, Joseph et al. 2005. Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software.   (“Open Code and Open Societies” by Lawrence Lessig) [6]

Meretz, Stefan. 2007. “GNU/Linux is not a thing of value -- and that is fine!.” Open Theory. (Accessed September 8, 2008).

Merten, Stefan. 2000. “GNU/Linux - Milestone on the Way to the GPL Society.” in Processings of LinuxTag 2000. Karlsruhe, Germany (Accessed September 8, 2008).

Merten, Stefan. 2001. “Free Software & GPL Society.” (Accessed September 8, 2008).

Seaman, Graham. 2002. “The Two Economies: Why the washing machine question is the wrong question.” (Accessed September 7, 2008).

Session 4: Anthropological perspectives (Part 1)

Kelty, Christopher. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press.   (Available for download in a variety of formats here and viewable online here).

Notes and Suggestions on Reading

For the reading group, read and be ready to discuss the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapters 3 through 7 (i.e., all of Part II). The rest of the book including Chapter 2 and Part III on "modulations" can be considered optional but is recommended. This is a lot of reading so don't try to start the morning of.

Rather than reading straight through I'd suggest the following way to proceed (based on suggestions from Biella Coleman who has taught this book in her classes):

  1. Start with the Introduction.
  2. Skip to Part II and proceed through it from Chapters 3 through 7.
  3. Come back to Part I and read Chapter 1 on "recursive publics" (probably the most important chapter).

If you have time to continue and finish the book:

  1. Read Chapter 2
  2. Read the "modulations" in Part III (Chapters 8 and 9).
  3. Read the Conclusion

Session 5: Economic/econometric perspectives

Benkler, Yochai. 2002. “Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm.” Yale Law Journal 112:369.   [7]

Ghosh, Rishab Aiyer. 1998. “Cooking Pot Markets: An Economic Model for the Trade in Free Goods and Services on the Internet.” First Monday 3.   [8]

Lakhani, Karim, and B. Wolf. 2005. “Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects.” Pp. 3-22 in Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, edited by Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam, and Karim R. Lakhani. MIT Press.   [9]

Lakhani, Karim R., and Eric von Hippel. 2003. “How open source software works: "Free" user-to-user assistance.” Research Policy 32:923-943.   [10]

Lerner, Josh, and Jean Tirole. 2002. “Some Simple Economics of Open Source.” Journal of Industrial Economics 50:197-234.   [11]

Riehle, Dirk. 2007. “The Economic Motivation of Open Source Software: Stakeholder Perspectives.” Computer 25-32.   [12]

Session 6: Final Session

Coleman, Gabriella. 2004. “The Political Agnosticism of Free and Open Source Software and the Inadvertent Politics of Contrast.” Anthropological Quarterly 77:507-519.   [13]

Healy, Kieran, and Alan Schussman. 2003. “The Ecology of Open-Source Software Development.” [14]

MacCormack, Alan D., John Rusnak, and Carliss Y. Baldwin. 2008. Exploring the Duality between Product and Organizational Architectures: A Test of the Mirroring Hypothesis. Harvard Business School (Accessed October 16, 2008). [15]

Also, please read these short reflections from this special issue of First Monday on the state of FOSS and of FOSS research over the last few years written by some prominent researchers (and me). It's written in 2005 but I think most of criticism and suggestions mostly apply: