Anyone who says ethics is easy don't know what they are talking about

I read a blog by Jeff Utecht that reminded me of several discussions of ethical behavior I had with students. The key point in his post is this "How do you make them understand, when they have grown up in a culture in which free music has always been available via the web." That is a huge part of the problem. Not just music either. Students today have grown up in a world where anything that can be easily copied is considered fair game. I had a student say "If they don't want me to copy it they should have made it hard to copy." Ah, yeah, right. The same student told me that if people leave their doors unlocked it shouldn't be a crime to enter the house. Oh, but if someone entered his house while it was unlocked they would feel free to "beat them up." Oh yes the double standard is not strictly the purview of adults.

But it gets worse before it gets better. The law around entering a house is relatively clear - crystal clear compared to rules around copying media. Jill Walker has a list of different activities around media that shows the differing opinions of if the activity is legal or not from different organizations. The list is from Norway but the rules are no more clear in any other country. What is legal and what is not when different groups say the law means/says different things. What is the poor teacher to do?

Jeff found the situation scary. I must confess that I found similar conversations equally scary. Students are growing up in a time when rules and ideas about property are different, ambiguous (at best), and confusing. Computers and the Internet make moving data (and music and video are are heart data) easy. It doesn't cost much to copy or use data in ways the creators of that data intended. Mark Cuban, who is very involved in media content creation) has a discussion in his blog about YouTube the popular video sharing web site and how it is doomed because of all the illegal content there. Is he right? Hard to say but he is a pretty smart guy who probably hires a lot of good lawyers to advise him. If only teachers had some good advice that they could give their students.

I worry about the future of content creation in this environment. Do we really want a world where no one can make money creating content? Do we want book writing, TV/movie creation, and music making (writing/performing) being solely the area of the amateur? Oh sure life performances will probably remain a pay-per-view event but is that all we want? Sure we complain about actors making millions for a movie or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a TV series. But if the TV stations and movie producers can't make the money to pay those people who are we left with to perform for us? What will the world be like if people can't make money writing, singing, or performing? I have no answers but a lot of questions.

I'd be interested in hearing how students and others answer these questions though.

[Cross posted in my Social Computing blog.]

Comments (2)

  1. Let me ask, is the following sentence true:

    If you cannot block access to your work, you cannot make any money from it.

    I contend that the sentence is not true. Examples abound. Architects, once they have designed a building, walk away from them. McDonalds loses all rights to the hamburger once it has been sold - and donesn't even own a patent on hamburgers! Bricklayers have no specific control over their craft.


    Content can be free and authors can still be paid. They can be paid in dozens of ways - by their employers, by the government, through gifts and donations, by public appearances and personal services... the list is almost endless.

    How irresponsible, then, is it to say stuff like this: "Do we really want a world where no one can make money creating content? Do we want book writing, TV/movie creation, and music making (writing/performing) being solely the area of the amateur?"

    This is, to put it bluntly, spreading a thesis about the nature of content creation that is manifestly false. It is to spread a gospel preached by the publisher, but that robs us of our right to communicate with each other.

    This should be thought through, and the ethics of all this not merely parroted from the nearest corporate provider.

  2. You are confusing "can" with "will." Just because authors can be paid does not mean that they will be paid. I see nothing false in my view of content creation and nothing in it that robs anyone of their right to communicate.

    On the other hand spreading a thesis that claims the authors should not have any control over their content robs them of a means to support themselves and so restricts the creation of content that benefits society.

    I do not claim that it prohibits them for all means of income but it does restrict them.

    If all recording become free because everyone makes copies of them an artist can still make money in live concerts. But a potential source of income is denied them.

    Let me add another example. A person dedicates a year of their life to creating a piece of software. He needs Y in funds to pay for that year. The software, while valuable, is only worth Y/10. Spending the time seems worthwhile because the author believes that he can sell the software 20 times. He sells a copy of the software to one company for Y/10 but before he can close other sales the first customer sells 19 copies at Y/20. The market is now saturated and the author has not made enough money to support himself. If this is ethical behavior explain how the author is better off now than he would have been had he been able to prevent the first company from re-selling his software.

    Only if you can make a case that the author is better off and will have more motivation and ability to create new software in the case I have described is this lack of control promoting communication.

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