On free documents, free knowledge, free software, copyrights, and my personal experience (I)

The reasons why Latin American governments should encourage the use and development of free software and document conform a multitude. Their nature go from  moral and education to economic savings. I speak from the situation of the Dominican Republic because (1) it is the one I know the best, and (2) though independent, it shares common traits with the rest of Latin countries.

The most basic of the aspects we need to fix is of a moral nature. One does not grow in the Dominican Republic with notions of copyrights, their terms and laws related to them. Since primary school, we copy-paste. Your teacher won’t tell you it is wrong to copy somebody else’s work and submit it as yours. Actually, that’s what they expect you to do. They won’t be categorical and tell you that you are stealing, and we need to fix this. We need to start teaching that we have to cite sources and use quotation marks or italics. We have to be informed about what is  copyright and when it applies, what it means when we click on “I accept the terms…”. But equally importantly, we also should know that there are different licenses, that there are documents of the public domain that you can copy and print for personal use. Probably even mass distribute it. That many times all you have to do is attribute the work to the person who created it and then you are free to use it, modify it, and distribute your modified version. If you haven’t done it yet, read the terms of use of Wikipedia or check my license section. You can also check around the terms GPL and Creative Commons.

But really related to this, is education in the more academic sense of the word, so I will go back to that copy-paste case that starts in primary school and never really ends. A teacher is meant to stimulate the creation of knowledge, not to simply stand in front of a class distributing data and information. What does the term critical thinking mean to the majority of Dominican teachers and professors? I am not sure of that. But the fact that they don’t really work so students develop it tells me a lot. It would be great to have a teacher who helped you understand the answers of these questions when writing: What do you want to communicate? Why? Did you just invent it or found the information somewhere else? That somewhere, what somewhere is it and why should I trust it? Do you think it is possible to write about X without looking it up? How about you try it? And what I am trying to say, in case it is blurry, is that you can’t simply enhance the development of a thinker if (s)he doesn’t ever go through the process of pondering ideas, their nature, their origin, how they are presented and expressed, and what they cost to the one who does the latter.

All these things are important when the money factor walks into the room. And there is something I hope we all understand, judging from a case I will describe. Imagine an 18-year-old girl from a family with very limited resources, probably from a countryside, who starts college in Santo Domingo. Her mother works as a housekeeper and gets paid 110USD monthly. Luckily her father lives with them and makes a little bit of money here and there, and can make 300-400USD a month. She can’t work because classes are totally scattered along the days, plus she has no especial skills. Just basic meals for the three of them plus rent is about 450 dollars. Then there are all sorts of expenses. Can this college student spend 100USD on books? We know the answer is “no”. You might be thinking “yeah, but that is not necessarily the general case”. But if you really want to understand why I say it, you might want to Google the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic, the employment rate, the formal to informal employment ratio, the average income in metropolitan areas and in rural areas… and any other useful indicator. You will see how bad it is. 

For educational purposes, many professors accept copied books and will even distribute them. The “lesser of the evils”, that is. “At least these kids are learning and will get a degree, they’ll have a better life and will produce money for themselves and the country”. Some others, teach the more traditional way where a student doesn’t have the opportunity to read abundant literature on the topic nor explore beyond the curriculum.

We must create free documents for education. Obviously we can’t write about highly-specialized topics if we don’t have the proper research and resources, but this can work really well for the more elemental and traversal areas: Spanish, math, history and others. And I believe it isn’t even a big investment if you compare it to the results.We are not going to start educating on copyright topics by simply saying “making copies of that book is illegal” and applying laws. We must provide an option. We need to start by providing materials in terms and prices that do not lead the average student to even consider the illegal possibilities.

I leave you with this, and I will keep writing more on this topic, on how hard it is and how long it can take to break certain illegal habits. And how free “whatever” manifest in other many other areas (not just education). See you soon!

Un pensamiento en “On free documents, free knowledge, free software, copyrights, and my personal experience (I)

  1. These topics are usually not commented throughout the people, especially here in Dominican Republic. I love the way you profound on a topic like this. It really makes one see things from a different perspective. I went through middle school and high school exactlly like that as well. Teachers would just say “google up info about our independence (for example)” and all we did was just go to wikipedia, copy, paste and boom, got a good grade for that, without considering who put the info there and most times not even having to read it. It’s something that really has to change. I thank you Lusmerlin for sharing your point of view and allowing us to take this at thought. One step at a time and eventually we may be able to see change.

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