More and more computer science programs are including units on ethical and legal issues. Perhaps one of the most controversial issues involving computer technology these days is that of intellectual property (IP).
One of the problems is that young people (and many older people) really don't understand the laws around IP. From a recent press release about a survey commissioned by Microsoft said:
Microsoft Corp. today announced the results of a new survey that found teenagers between seventh and 10th grades are less likely to illegally download content from the Internet when they know the laws for downloading and sharing content online.
About half of those teens, however, said they were not familiar with these laws, and only 11 percent of them clearly understood the current rules for downloading images, literature, music, movies and software. Teens who were familiar with downloading rules credited their parents, TV or stories in magazines and newspapers, and Web sites — more so than their schools — as resources for information about illegal downloading.
To help with educating students Microsoft has created some teaching resources for teachers (available here) that make up "a comprehensive set of cross-curricular classroom activities designed for grades 8-10 (but easily adaptable for use in grades 6-12) and organized into thematic units."
A companion site for students called MyBytes allows students to create their own content (or Intellectual Property) and to learn more about the why and what about IP. There are a number of interviews there with creative artists who talk about what IP means to them and their way of life.
Now on the other hand not everyone agrees with these ideas of intellectual property, especially where copyright is concerned. At Wikipedia you can read about the anti-copyright movement. The Creative Commons organization supports a number of licences that allow various kinds of access rights for different purposes. The use of technical means to protect copyright, often called Digital Rights Management or DRM) is the heart of a controversiy that is both of its own and part of the greater discussion of copyright. The Free Software Foundation has a lot to say on that score. I think of them as extremists but others see them as heros. Your views may vary.
Now are ethics and the law in agreement or in opposition here? That is the big question. I'd love to hear the thoughts of others but especially of students. If nothing else I think this is an important topic to discuss with students no matter which side you stand on the issues.