Most students know it’s against the law to share copyright-protected software, games, music, and movies online–yet many admit to downloading such files anyway, according to a new survey.

Educators and others agree that anti-piracy education is a key component to encouraging ethical computer use among students. But only 18 percent of the students surveyed said they learned about copyright law from a teacher or other educator.

The nationwide poll, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), asked more than 1,100 students–ages eight to 18–about their attitudes toward copyright law and internet behavior, including uploading and downloading copyrighted files through online peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks.

According to the survey, 91 percent of students knew that books are protected by copyright law; 88 percent knew that movies are copyrighted; 88 percent, music; 86 percent, software; 83 percent, games; and 64 percent, web sites. Yet more than half of students (53 percent) admitted to downloading music files, and a third (32 percent) said they download games. Fewer kids said they download large digital files, such as commercial software (22 percent) and movies (17 percent).

“Unfortunately, many kids and teens continue to download copyrighted works illegally–even though more than half of them think there are laws against downloading digital works,” said Diane Smiroldo, vice president of public affairs for BSA.

“What’s most alarming is that eight out of 10 kids and teens understand the definition of copyright and nearly all of them, especially teens, are aware that software, music, and movies are protected by copyright,” Smiroldo said. “The fact that kids know stealing software is wrong, and yet they behave like it’s OK, clearly illustrates a challenging ethical dilemma.”

Students indicated they are more worried about technological problems while downloading digital media than they are about the ethics of stealing, the survey revealed.

When illegally downloading, young people worry more about accidentally downloading a computer virus (60 percent) than they do about whether they can get in trouble with the law (50 percent) or accidentally downloading spyware (43 percent). Only 29 percent worry that the act is wrong. Girls worry more about all risks, and boys (19 percent) are more likely to say that none of these things worry them.

Risks aside, those who think it’s OK to download software illegally gave the following reasons:

  • I do not have money to pay for software (51 percent);
  • I wouldn’t use the software if I had to pay for it (35 percent);
  • Lots of people do it (33 percent);
  • It doesn’t hurt anybody when I do this (26 percent);
  • No one has ever told me not to (19 percent);
  • I won’t get in trouble for doing it (15 percent); and
  • My parents have said it is OK (8 percent).

“What’s of most concern is that kids take big risks to steal software, and they perceive it as a victimless crime. One in four says ‘it doesn’t hurt anybody when I do this,’ and that underscores a cyber ethics education deficiency at home and in the schools,” Smiroldo said.

Most students said their education about laws protecting creative works online stems from watching television (59 percent). Other sources include a parent (44 percent), the internet (44 percent), advertisements (36 percent), friends (30 percent), and–at the bottom of the list–teachers (18 percent). Younger kids (ages eight to 12) are more likely to say they learn about copyright laws from their parents (44 percent).

“It’s critical that parents and teachers continue to educate our young people about the importance of cyber ethics and respect for intellectual property. Parents should supervise their kids’ activities online, since much of this behavior takes place at home,” Smiroldo said.

“Our hope is that parents and educators utilize the many resources available to teach youth to become good cyber citizens, so that these kids do the right thing as they get older.”

To help teach kids to respect digital copyright law and become “good cyber citizens,” BSA offers parents, teachers, and students a number of free cyber-ethics resources, including its “Play It Safe in Cyberspace” curriculum, which was co-produced by the children’s publisher Weekly Reader. Since its initial distribution in 2002, the curriculum has reached more than 13 million students, parents, and teachers, BSA said.

Educators contacted by eSchool News said they weren’t surprised by the poll results. They agreed that schools should teach students about the appropriate use of copyright-protected materials–and should enforce these expectations during the school day–but many also said adults are at least partly to blame for the problem.

“I believe students understand the concept of copyright, but have few models of appropriate behavior to follow,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. “Xeroxing of printed works, videotaping, ‘TiVo’-ing, ripping CDs, scanning, et cetera, are all techniques used in the workplace and at home by adults–which provides the illusion of appropriate use.”

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., took the argument a step further.

“It is wrong to equip our students digitally without teaching them the values of honesty and integrity, and that would include making sure faculty and school machines are up to license specifications as well,” he said. “I wonder if students are watching us more than listening to us.”


Business Software Alliance

Poll results

Play It Safe in Cyberspace