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As educators, we desire to instill ethics in students that will guide them on a path to good, appropriate behavior and propel them to be upstanding members of society. With such a great percentage of students’ lives spent online, strong digital citizenship instruction is crucial; it is how we address ethical behavior as it pertains to students’ online activity. Sometimes mere guidelines and principles are not enough. Sometimes the force of law is required to ensure members of society do the right thing.

The creation of the internet and the digitization of so much intellectual content such as books, music, software, movies and images make the need for strong copyright laws more important now than ever. In three clicks (right click, copy, paste) I can steal someone’s intellectual property that might have taken him or her a lot of money, time, and effort to create.

We see the importance of copyright of intellectual property playing out in geopolitics today. The president of the United States has engaged the country in a trade war against China. In addition to currency manipulation, one of the strongest reasons this administration provides for levying tariffs is China’s flouting of copyright laws. It puts the United States at an unfair disadvantage and robs the original creators of the intellectual property when Chinese companies—owned and run by the Chinese government—ignore copyright and patents to create their own products using the intellectual property created by U.S. companies.

What’s the big deal? So what if I use an image, a song, or a clip of a movie to enhance a piece of multimedia without getting permission, paying a royalty, or providing proper attribution to the original creators? How is that harmful? I think we can all agree that intellectual property has value (otherwise, why else would someone want to use it?), and that property required time, effort, and money to create. Without protections for these types of property, there would be no motivation for artists, musicians, directors, or anyone else creating intellectual property to create it.

Back in 1999, a college student by the name of Sean Parker created a peer-to-peer file sharing application that within a couple short years would completely upend the music industry. The program—called Napster—allowed anyone in the world with internet access and the program installed on their computer to share music files with each other. Now, instead of the old practice of copying a cassette tape from a friend or burning a copy of a CD, you had “peers” all over the world with whom you could share or copy their files to your own computer. In essence, this “file sharing” was music stealing in that it deprived musicians (and record companies) access to royalties based on the sale of those music files.

Napster is a perfect example of how new technology can make it easy to circumvent copyright laws. Sadly, appealing to people’s sense of fairness did not tamp down on the practice of sharing files in this manner. It was through the use of copyright laws and record companies demanding the assistance of internet service providers to identify and send cease and desist orders to individuals engaging in the practice to make it stop. In time, legitimate companies such as Apple capitalized on the distribution problem Napster solved, but set up a clearinghouse in which the creators of intellectual property could be properly compensated.



Copyright and Fair Use. Common Sense Education. (September 2014). YouTube URL:

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