Doing what’s right, not just what’s legal.

Cheshire Puss, asked Alice. Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? That depends a good deal on where you want to go, said the Cat. I don’t much care where, said Alice. Then it doesn’t matter which way you go, said the Cat.

Charles “Lewis Carroll” Dodgson 1832-1898, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 1865

As a Digital Literacy professional, I often get invited into conversations about copyright. “How much of this are we allowed to use?” “But, it’s for educational purposes.” “We’re just going to keep it in the classroom.” are common things that come up during these conversations. Often, what people are looking for is validation. They want me to say it’s O.K.

Moral Compass by psd, on Flickr

For a while now, I’ve been forming up a solid response to this issue and I believe I’ve finally honed in on something I’m happy with:

In these matters, do what’s ethical rather than what’s merely legal.

The reason I’m advocating for an ethical approach rather than a legal approach is two-fold: First, the student I teach are mobile.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  psd
Moving from place to place puts them in environments with vastly different legal protection for content creators.  What they knew as copyright law when they were living in the United States is interpreted differently now that they’re in China.  We can’t expect our students (or teachers) to be able to consistently apply these laws that are sometimes very murky (how many 16 year olds can explain U.S. “Fair Use” for example?).  Second, just because the law is different in the place where you currently are, doesn’t mean that you should necessarily change your behavior just because previously banned behavior is legal in your new location.  Therefore, an ethical approach that transcends locale, founded on respect for the work of others is preferable.

I’d like to think that this approach is simpler, yet under it’s simplicity lies the problem of helping people adjust their moral compass. We, as teachers and parents, can help out a lot with this by simply modeling ethical behavior when faced with the opportunity to cheat.  This includes not photocopying the textbook, always citing the sources for images, music, and text that is not our own, and modeling the use of Creative Commons licenses including licensing our own creative work. We also teach these lessons formally when we talk about creating multimedia project, most often when they are requires the use of images.  We show our students how to do the Advanced Search in Google and select by license.  Likewise, we introduce Compfight as a place to search for beautiful images that can be filtered by reuse requirements. We use the curriculum developed by Common Sense Media, in particular, their Respecting Creative Work (this is 6-8, but there is a K-12 curriculum available) topic.

By helping students develop their moral compass and respect for the work of others, we think they will be more likely to do the right thing even when nobody is watching.


About jplaman

Jeffrey Plaman is in Singapore where he's a Digital Literacy Coach at United World College of South East Asia. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator with a special interest in developing digital citizenship.
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3 Responses to Doing what’s right, not just what’s legal.

  1. Jason Graham says:

    Enjoyed reading your post on legal. In Indonesia this is a HUGE issue. Its so difficult that the energy to police illegal software outweighs our capabilities. We have ourselves found illegal items on our own server- and deleted them accordingly. Most of this is due to staff not really knowing if it is legal or not. This is very tough in a country that pirates so many things, and where it is deemed socially acceptable. We dont police, but educate and that seems to work for the most part. It is a community shift in mindset. I wonder how this translates in the community outside of the school walls.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    I think the Harry Potter Can Fly mnemonic framework for addressing copyright can work for your mobile students… It encourages 3 levels of media use BEFORE talking about fair use:

  3. The topic of copyright and fair use is always challenging for students and teachers. With the current trend to shift acceptable use to responsible use, it is appropriate to ask students to do what’s right. However, this presupposes that school, parents, our communities are helping children develop their moral compass.

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