Reality Check: Teaching Students About Intellectual Property Rights

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.

[Thanks to Blake Handler who blogs at "The Road to Know Where" who sent me a link to the WGA blog where I learned about the Microsoft curriculum.]

Comments (4)

  1. Luke Gedeon says:

    I think that Copyrights laws are bad law. They made sense and where even helpful 50 years ago, but the nature of information distribution has changed so dramatically since then as to render these old laws useless and actually harmful.

    I posted recently on this at

    I will of course abide by current law and encourage everyone I know to do the same, but I am philosophically opposed to the law as it currently stands and if given the opportunity will move to change it for the benefit of future generations.

  2. AlfredTh says:

    Thanks for the view and the link Luke. That’s a useful addition to the discussion. I would prefer that students look at multiple sides/views and areas of the topic rather than blindly accepting one view or the other.

  3. Tony says:

    A lot of IP doesn’t make sense and/or is abused. One has to wonder if the "in-the-know" students are really better off since "TV or stories in magazines" are likely to be heavily influenced by RIAA/MPAA. Considering some of the moves made by the said organizations, it is arguably unethical to enforce the current laws in the matter that they do.

    The irony of this though, is that RIAA/MPAA are abusing IP and crippling their own distribution schemes (DRM is a _horrible_ idea) so much, that their actions encourage alternative access to content. Which might or might not be legal or ethical.

  4. r wells says:

    I really think that it should be REQUIRED that students be taught about this type of thing. Our teacher classroom management site is covered with very unique cartoon art that we created for our own use on our site, but we find our cartoons all over the web on blogs, in ads, on sites, you name it– even though our copyright is clearly posted. Not only do young people and not so young people steal our art, they leave the art’s link in place so it is served from our server on their site. They steal our posters too. I really think they don’t understand that this is stealing but if these areas were routinely covered, I believe people would understand and some would refrain. I really related to this post.

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