Intellectual Honesty in the Era of Computing

by DR. FRANK W. CONNOLLY, Associate Professor The American University Washington, D.C. Cyberspace, the electronic frontier, is the realization of the American fantasy—the ultimate in freedom and rugged individualism. Whether sitting at your stand-alone personal computer or surfing the nets, the world of bits and bytes and electrons is the place where individuals reign supreme. The good news is that for all practical purposes there are: no police, few laws, great flexibility and power, and unlimited freedom. The bad news is that for all practical purposes there are: no police, few laws, great flexibility and power, and unlimited freedom. But, freedom d'es not mean license; technical ability is not a mandate to act; and, lack of enforcement mechanisms d'es not equate to permission. Freedom means that one is expected to use judgment and care; technical ability provides the power to act or not act; and, lack of enforcement compels individuals to accept sole responsibility for their decisions and actions. Like Plato's lesson regarding the Ring of Gyges, the fact that one is unlikely to get caught is neither excuse nor justification for unacceptable behavior. Why Not Copy It? Computers facilitate many things in higher education—teaching, learning, writing, research, administrivia—and they do so by enabling individual teachers, students, staff and administrators. Like the shepherd of Gyges' ring, computers facilitate and enable these things under a mantle of invisibility. Users can sit alone in their dorm rooms, or homes, or offices and do wondrous things unobserved, and typically undetectable by others. Given this power and these conditions, why shouldn't computer users scan pictures and copy software with impunity? To be blunt, there are three simple reasons: It's illegal; It's unethical; and It's not in their self interest, even if they never get caught. Illegal. The intellectual property laws of the United States, as amended and modified, cover numerous things including computer software and other digitized works such as graphics, pictures and sounds. In its simplest form the law says that it is legal to make an archival copy of digitized works and illegal to make other copies without the permission of the person or organization that holds the rights to the material. There is an exception to this called "fair use," governed by four limiting conditions and worthy of several articles all by itself. Since constitutional times our laws have protected intellectual works and failure to do so is a violation of the law. Unethical. Again in simple terms, it is unethical to take something that belongs to another person without the permission of the other person. Kant's categorical imperative and the Golden Rule address the situation. An individual devalues the labor, creativity and dedication that creators put into a work by making a copy of it. The copier is treating the creators as means to his/her personal ends. The unauthorized copier effectively discounts the worth and value of the creators by choosing to count their talents and labor as worthless. That's unacceptable in any community, but especially in one committed to intellectual honesty. Not in their self interest. All of us are members of society and benefit from our association and involvement in it. To the extent that society functions effectively, our lives are easier and richer. As the social structure deteriorates, each of us expends more time and energy protecting our personal interest—if A can't trust B to treat her fairly then A spends more time watching B and less time creating and sharing. The result is A expends great energy and resources but there is nothing to show for it—both A and B lose. The same is true with computerized works. Making copies means that creators will either increase prices to cover the cost of theft, or reduce their creations as they do not receive an acceptable level of return on their work (one can argue about the appropriate level, but that is not within the scope of this paper). In either case, the person who copies digitized works with impunity may benefit in the short term but is contributing to increased costs or decreased creativity for everyone in the long run. Addressing the Obvious Dilemma The opposing factors create a dilemma #172;an environment that values rugged individualism and freedom juxtaposed with social requirements that demand responsibility and restraint. The dilemma is nowhere more obvious than in the legal context. While laws clearly exist and apply, for all intents and purposes they are unenforceable. There are no bit cops monitoring the activities of individuals as they work with personal computers. The law places the burden of enforcement on the holders of copyright—that is, it is the copyright holders who must take the initiative when their rights have been infringed. Although there are cases of successful infringement, they are few and far between. The likelihood of being caught and punished is extremely small. So, what purpose do the laws serve? Even when unenforceable, laws detail society's expectations. Laws lay out what society has said are the appropriate limits. They serve to mark the boundaries of minimal acceptable behavior.


The same is true of institutional policy. A policy specifically outlawing software piracy and copying pictures, sounds and graphics is extremely difficult to enforce. Why would a college or university bother to spend the time and energy to promulgate such a policy? Two reasons come to mind—liability and environment. Institutions proclaim such policies to ensure that members of the campus community and the general public are aware of its formal position on a subject such as intellectual property. The policy may be the basis for mitigating liability if an employee is found acting counter to the policy. But more important, the policy is a critical factor in creating an environment, a context, within which students, faculty and staff function. The fact that the policy may be difficult to enforce d'es not void its value in establishing a climate by formally stating that this institution values intellectual honesty and that includes not just plagiarism but piracy as well. Rules Alone Won't Hack it! But it takes much more than a policy to effectively deal with issues and concerns surrounding intellectual property. Since such laws and policy are not easily enforceable in this age of computers, both society and organizations look to and depend upon the personal integrity of those in their communities. That requires not only a foundation in policy but also a commitment to enabling the policy via education, facilities and example. Institutions need to make training available and strongly encourage members of the community to take advantage of the training. Education is needed for students, faculty and staff not only about the importance of intellectual honesty but also on the laws, rules, procedures and expectations of society and the institution regarding intellectual property. Institutions need to provide facilities and resources that foster respect for the institution's policy. When students, staff or faculty are expected to use resources, the institution ought to have those resources readily available rather than encourage pirating by making access difficult, limited or impossible. Faculty particularly need to be aware that assignments that encourage and reward use of resources not available to every student encourage class members to ignore the institution's and the instructor's stated policies. Perhaps the most important tool for fostering a climate of intellectual honesty and respect is example. Clearly one of the most critical responsibilities for faculty members is the proper character formation of students entrusted to their tutelage. The expectation that students will respect intellectual property is hollow if the teacher fails to personify the expectation. So too, administrators and staff set an example for each other and their subordinates. It is example that creates a day-to-day awareness of, or disregard for, intellectual honesty. Conclusion Intellectual honesty is a fundamental value in education. It includes respect for the intellectual creations of others. The onslaught of computers in our lives has not changed the rules, but it is putting our values to the test by making it easy to appropriate the works of others. While laws and policy condemn and ban such activity, in the world of computers it will be individuals who decide the issue. Like the shepherd of Gyges, individual computer users are tempted to exploit a cloak of invisibility for their personal benefit. Institutions need to create an environment and foster a responsible computing attitude throughout their communities that respects intellectual honesty not because it is the law or policy, but because it is the ethical and appropriate way to behave. Frank Connolly, an associate professor of Information Systems at The American University, is a former vice president of EDUCOM and presently heads the Ethics and Technology initiatives for the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE). Connolly is also principal architect and spokesperson for the "Bill of Rights & Responsibilities for Electronic Learners." He published The Ethics Kit, by S. Webster and F. Connolly (eds), Primus/McGraw-Hill, October 1993. Currently Connolly offers a series of one-day workshops for K-12 community on challenges of the Internet. The workshops focus on the policy and behavioral aspect of connectivity, rather than the wires and technology aspect. Three workshops are directed to school boards, school administrators and teachers. E-mail: [email protected]. A Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Electronic Learners Preamble In order to protect the rights and recognize the responsibilities of individuals and institutions, we, the members of the educational community, propose this Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for the Electronic Community of Learners. These principles are based on a recognition that the electronic community is a complex subsystem of the educational community founded on the values espoused by that community. As new technology modifies the system and further empowers individuals, new values and responsibilities will change this culture. As technology assumes an integral role in education and lifelong learning, technological empowerment of individuals and organizations becomes a requirement and right for students, faculty, staff, and institutions, bringing with it new levels of responsibility that individuals and institutions have to themselves and to other members of the educational community.


Article III: Rights of Educational Institutions Educational institutions have legal standing similar to that of individuals. Our society depends upon educational institutions to educate our citizens and advance the development of knowledge. However, in order to survive, educational institutions must attract financial and human resources. Therefore, society must grant these institutions the rights to the electronic resources and information necessary to accomplish their goals. Section 1. The access of an educational institutions to computing and information resources shall not be denied or removed without just cause. Section 2. Educational institutions in the electronic community of learners have ownership rights over intellectual works they create. Section 3. Each educational institution has the authority to allocate resources in accordance with its unique institutional mission. Article IV: Institutional Responsibilities Just as certain rights are assured to educational institutions in the electronic community of learners, so too each is held accountable for the appropriate exercise of those rights to foster the values of society and to carry out each institution's mission. This interplay of rights and responsibilities within the community fosters the creation and maintenance of an environment wherein trust and intellectual freedom are the foundation for individual and institutional growth and success. Section 1. The institutional members of the electronic community of learners have a responsibility to provide all members of their community with legally acquired computer resources (hardware, software, networks, databases, etc.) in all instances where access to or use of the resources is an integral part of active participation in the electronic community of learners. Section 2. Institutions have a responsibility to develop, implement, and maintain security procedures to insure the integrity of individual and institutional files. Section 3. The institution shall treat electronically stored information as confidential. The institution shall treat all personal files as confidential, examining or disclosing the contents only when authorized by the owner of the information, approved by the appropriate institutional official, or required by local, state or federal law. Section 4. Institutions in the electronic community of learners shall train and support faculty, staff, and students to effectively use information technology. Training includes skills to use the resources, to be aware of the existence of data repositories and techniques for using them, and to understand the ethical and legal uses of the resources. August 1993 Editor's Note: The first two sections of this "Bill of Rights" covers Individual Rights and Individual Responsibilities. Due to space limitations, we were not able to include those sections. Contact Dr. Connolly for the full text.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.