Battles Over Bits (3 units)
Autumn Quarter 2005-2006, Stanford University
Instructor:  Todd Davies
Meeting Time: Wednesdays 7:00-9:30 PM (first meeting on September 28)
Location: 460-334 (Margaret Jacks Hall, 3rd floor)
Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Email: tdavies at
Office Hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays 10:30 AM - 12:00 Noon
Course website: (this syllabus)

Updated June 21, 2006

Prerequisite: Completion of Psych 40, Psych 70, or SymbSys 202; some background in economics would be helpful


In the age of the Internet, information has increasingly taken on the characteristics of what economists call a "public good".  A public good is one that is non-rival in consumption, meaning that one person's consumption of the good does not preclude or interfere with someone else's.  If I have a private good, such as an apple, then if I eat it up, you may not.   If I give it to you, I no longer have it.  When information is only available in a bundled physical form such as a book or a videotape, then it too has characteristics of a private good.  If I lend you a book, then I no longer have it, unless I have two copies of the same book. But on the Internet, I can send you a digital file of the book without losing my own copy and we can then both read it.  Your consumption will not preclude or interfere with mine.  The information has thus become nonrival, or a "public good". 

A public good may have the additional property of being nonexcludable, meaning that it is either difficult or impossible for the producer of the good to select who can and who cannot consume it.  Excludability is necessary if you want to force people to pay for something. If a good is nonexcludable, then if one person pays for and consumes the good, many more can consume it without paying.  When information is nonrival, then producers of it are hard-pressed to prevent people from sharing it, since there is little cost to the consumers and much they can gain from each other through trading.  With digital information such as songs, movies, and software, producers attempt to restrict file sharing with copy protection technology, but effective copy protection is extremely difficult to achieve, and is in some sense impossible for analog-convertible media. When copy protection fails, information is nonexcludable. 

Exclusion can, however, be enforced by the state.  Laws can be passed making it illegal for anyone to obtain information without paying the producer, and surveillance technology increases the government's ability to monitor compliance.  Thus, the Internet has increased incentives for producers of information who want to keep it excludable to try to get the government to enforce the exclusion, through legal mechanisms such as copyrights.  This has led to an instance of what appears to be the loser's paradox: as the producers of information have lost economic power, they have gained government favor; as network communication technology has made information much easier to share, laws to prevent sharing have been strengthened. 

Access to communication and to the Internet itself have also become more like public goods through developments in wireless technology.  If there is enough spectrum to allow everyone to move as much data as they want through the air, then we might expect long-distance communication to be treated much like breathing: free to all without the need to pay a fee.  Once again, however, government can step in and declare that wireless communication must be licensed, a barrier to entry that then allows holders of the licenses to charge a fee for accessing their networks.  Public goods (or quasi-public goods) can arise through government choice, as when a government builds a free highway system, or when a portion of spectrum is unlicensed.  Increasingly, local governments have been attempting to create free broadband networks.  Proprietary network providers have acted to prevent this, however, on grounds that government-subsidized free networks constitute unfair competition with their fee-based services.

Copyrights, trademarks, patents, and licenses are all ways of legally restricting how people can use information.  As such, they depend on the notion of "intellectual property" -- legal ownership and rights to control information that has been produced through human effort.  In the United States, intellectual property generally entails economic rights: e.g., the right to receive payment for information, or the right to a monopoly in the market for an information-derived product.  An alternative perspective, however, has arisen from the "free software" movement -- the idea of a "copyleft" license like the GNU General Public License (GPL).  The GPL forswears a producer's economic claims on the use and distribution of computer code for users who agree to share any improvements they make to the code under the same license.  The GPL and related licenses are the basis of the "open source" approach to software development.  Open source programs such as the Linux operating system and the Firefox web browser have been denounced by proprietary software vendors and, though the debate has cooled down somewhat, many in the software industry view the whole concept as a threat to themselves, the industry, and even the economy as a whole. 

The attempts by vested interests to influence public attitudes and government policy have led to numerous legal and political battles.  In all of these "battles over bits", proprietary and commercial interests generally make two broad arguments: (1) some form of exclusion is necessary for information and communication industries to make a profit; and (2) the possibility of making a profit is a necessary incentive for producing the communication technology and information that most people want.   In this course, we will examine these and other arguments and assumptions underlying recent battles over bits, applying critical thinking as well as theory and evidence from several disciplines.

Course Overview:

This is a small, reading- and discussion-based seminar. 

During the first half of the quarter (weeks 1-6), everyone will read a set of common texts that span multiple perspectives on battles over bits.  Over the second half (weeks 7-10), each student will present a (generally recent) book or set of articles related to the theme of the course.  Each student will pick the reading they will present, read it, select part of it for everyone to read, distribute copies (one week in advance), and then present and lead a discussion on the book's or articles' ideas during a class session, sometime between weeks 7 and 10 (inclusive).  

In addition to leading a discussion, each student will be expected to write a 5-8 page critical review of their chosen book or article set, to be placed on this website at the end of the course, and to submit 1-3 page comments regarding both the excerpt and the class discussion of two of the readings chosen by other students.  These comments will be attached to those books'/articles' sections on the website at the end of the quarter (with students' permission).  The class will thus serve as a network of learners, sharing information with other participants and interested visitors to the website, regarding more books than any one of us would most likely have time to read on our own. 


The requirements for the course are that each student (a) attend regularly and participate in class, (b) lead a discussion, (c) write a 5-8 page (double or 1.5-spaced, 11-point or greater font size) paper based on the material they present, and (d) write two 1-3 page commentaries based on material presented by other students.  Final papers and commentaries are due via email (html form) by 5 pm on Friday, December 9, 2005.  If everyone agrees, I will post papers and commentaries on this website so that they can be read by all.  The following handouts (distributed in Week 4, revised slightly) provide guidelines for discussion leading and for writing papers and commentaries.

Grading Basis:

1. In-class discussion leading (25%)
2. Written review (50%)
3. Comments on two other topics discussed during the quarter (25%)
4. Borderline grades will be influenced by attendance and participation (both quality and quantity)

Schedule: (Access to some papers may require a Stanford IP address)

Week 1 (September 28) -- Overview and Introductory Discussion

Week 2 (October 5) - Information and Communication
Required Reading:

Supplementary Reading:

Supplementary Event:

Week 3
(October 12) -- Organizations, Systems, and Psychology
Required Reading:

Supplementary Reading:

Film (To Be Shown in Class):

Week 4
(October 19) -- Intellectual Property - History and Theory
Required Reading:

Supplementary Reading:

Supplementary Event:

Week 5 (October 26) -- Free and Open Source Software
Required Reading:

Supplementary Reading:

Supplementary Film (To Be Shown at the Symbolic Systems Forum on Thursday, October 13 at 4:15 pm in 380-380C):

Week 6 (November 2) -- Alternative Futures
Required Reading:

Supplementary Reading:

Supplementary Events:

Week 7
(November 9) -- Student-led Discussions I
Required Reading:

Week 8 (November 16) -- Student-led Discussions II
Required Reading:

Week 9 (November 30) -- Student-led Discussions III
Required Reading:

Week 10 (December 7) -- Concluding Discussion
Supplementary Reading:

Pool of Suggested Readings for Student-Led Discussions (Weeks 7-9):

Post-course Links

The following have been added since the course ended: