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Posted April 14, 2003 

Talking to Teens About Cyber-Ethics
By Bob Kruger, Vice President,
Business Software Alliance

[Bob Kruger is vice president of the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and a recognized expert in software piracy. BSA is the foremost organization dedicated to promoting a safe and legal digital world. BSA is the voice of the world's software and Internet industry before governments and with consumers in the international marketplace.]

For a teen who is struggling with impulse control, one more rule to follow is seldom welcome. Yet where computer and Internet usage is concerned, there is one more rule teens ignore at their peril: “Don’t copy.”

Though many teens, and the adults in their lives, don’t realize it, making unauthorized copies of programs or downloading software from the Internet is illegal.

Stealing software or cyber text is really no different from shoplifting from a retail store. And far from being a victimless crime, “software piracy,” as this type of activity is called, has far-reaching consequences for teens, for teachers and parents, and for software creators and manufacturers. How can adults help struggling teens to develop good cyber-ethics?

Cause and Effect
“Yes, but will I get caught?” For teens still trying to grasp the finer points of cause-and-effect, that may seem like the operative question. Persuading them that there’s more at stake is a tall order. Try offering an example. Ask a student who draws or plays music how he would feel if someone took and exploited his work without his permission. The discussion that ensues will shed light on the right and wrong of software piracy.

Not that there aren’t some “effects” to consider: For one thing, obtaining files or software secondhand—whether from a friend or via illegal download for which no fee is charged—exposes a computer’s data and hard drive to viruses and worms that can cause damage.

Software piracy has a broader impact, too. When software is stolen, companies must adjust their budgets to make up those losses, which means software creators may lose their jobs, which harms the families those jobs support. According to the Business Software Alliance (BSA) in 2001, software piracy resulted in the loss of 111,000 jobs and $5.6 billion in wages.

“Yes, but will I get caught?” Students still asking that question should know that Internet search engines make it easy for suspicious teachers to find the source of plagiarized passages in seconds. The physics professor at the University of Virginia (UVA) actually wrote a computer program that singled out the offenders.

Have you yourself ever borrowed software from a friend to make a copy for yourself? Downloaded an application without paying for it? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. More than a third of adult Internet users admit to downloading commercial software without paying for all the copies they made, according to an Ipsos survey.

Sharing your experience with teens, and explaining why, from now on, you will make no more unauthorized copies, provides fodder for discussion, modeling accountability and demonstrating that it is never too late to chart a course for ethical behavior.

Respecting others’ property means respecting “intellectual property” too. “I paid for this software. Why can’t I let my friend copy it?” The fault in that argument lies in the nature of “copyright,” the right to copy a piece of intellectual property such as a book, a music recording, or a computer program.

A software purchase typically entitles a person to use that program on his or her own computer—but not to copy it without permission. That’s because someone else—the publisher or creator, not the end user—owns the “copyright,” or right to copy, that software.

To protect the owner’s rights, legitimate software packages are generally subject to a license agreement that protects both buyers and sellers. They provide the grant of permission from the copyright owner to install the software program and make a specific, limited number of copies, typically for the user’s own use as a backup. With an authorized copy, you typically receive access to technical support and program upgrades, things you won’t get with a “bootleg” or illegal copy.

Seeking Cyber-Ethics Resources
It probably comes as no surprise that there’s help with Internet safety issues on the Internet. offers information and activities that promote smart and safe computer and Internet use. The site offers students up to grade eight a selection of engaging, age-appropriate activities, including a curriculum created by BSA and children’s publisher, Weekly Reader, that make it easy to learn more about intellectual property, copyright and the ethical and legal uses of software. You can even download an educational curriculum—and yes, you have permission!


  • Dr. Marvin Berkowitz of St. Louis University conducted an analysis of the behavioral development factors that must be considered in searching for an optimal age range for instruction of cyber ethics. Dr. Berkowitz concluded that the 9-12 age was a "very reasonable" age to target for a first time strategy of cyber ethics instruction. . . The 9-12 age is also the point in development where children begin to understand abstract values, for example, privacy rights, and can begin to evaluate the consequences of their actions. (Source: “The Cybercitizen Partnership: Teaching Children Cyber Ethics,” Information Technology Association of America Foundation, 2000)

  • A recent online poll by Scholastic Magazine of almost 50,000 elementary and middle school students showed that 50 percent of the students did not believe that hacking was a crime.

  • Most Internet use among young people occurs from the home (63 percent). (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001)

  • 78 percent go online at least a few times a week. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)

  • Among the youth who go online, about 70 percent say they have accidentally stumbled across pornography online. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)

  • Almost a third of children watch less TV since having Net access in 2002, up from 23 percent the year before (Source: UCLA’s Internet Report, January 2003)

Education’s Influence:

  • More than 80 percent of U.S. children who used the Internet last year did so at home, a substantial increase over 2000 and 2001, and nearly three-quarters of children who used the Internet in 2002 went online at school, up from little more than half of children in 2000. (Source: UCLA’s Internet Report, January 2003)

  • Twelve states have established online high school programs, and five others are developing them. Twenty-five states allow for the creation of so-called cyber charter schools, and 32 states have e-learning initiatives under way. (Source: “E-Defining Education: A Survey of Sate Technology Coordinators,” Education Week, 2002)

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