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Legal and Ethical Issues in Multimedia:
A Technical Perspective
School of Multimedia and Information Technology
Southern Cross University, AUSTRALIA
In the multimedia environment, where there is a perception that software
and intellectual property is free, protection of these assets is a difficult
task. Materials produced for on-line learning, multimedia developments
and web sites are at the mercy of hackers and other inquisitive computer
users. The technological challenge to protect these assets from theft,
manipulation and illegal copying is a never-ending battle. Educators play
a major role in this protection by informing, discussing and encouraging
students to think about these issues from an ethical viewpoint. From a
technical standpoint, there is a continual need to search for methods to
limit the chance of computer copyright violation, media theft and computer
security breaches, especially in an educational facility.
Copyright, Education, Ethics, Law, Technical
As education is embraced on the World Wide Web with more courses
going on-line, educators need to give a thought to the current attitudes of
computer users. The mass of information available on the web and the
ease of access to this information has led to a new breed of computer user.
McCalman describes the feelings of authors when contemplating
electronic publications. 'Why bother to create something if it is to be
stolen? ... Why bother if I can't own my own words and have that
recognised throughout the world as my original creation? ... Electronic
texts can be used in secret by people thousands of kilometres away from
their source. Even worse, they can be entered and altered, sabotaged and
filched, so that no one may ever know it happened and how.' (McCalman
1995, quoted in Weckert and Adeney 1997 p.57).
~ 1 ~
The current paper describes some ethical and security issues that are faced
by educators and technical staff in an education environment. It presents
legal and ethical perceptions of students with regard to copyright issues.
This will then be followed by a discussion of technical security safeguards
that can be put in place to decrease security problems.
The Law and Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is described by Webber (2000 p.21) as a collective set
of exclusive rights which creators can obtain for their works, provided by
patents, trade marks, designs, and copyright. Copyright laws (the
Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)) cover most intellectual property and software
ownership issues, but they are not very effective when applied to groups
of computing students. When financial harm is caused to the owner of
software, images, electronic works, it is clear why copying this work is
“wrong”. When subtle alterations are made to images, or portions of
works are copied then manipulated, so that it is not easy to recognise the
original work, it is more difficult to assess the "wrong". If a change is
made to an image that was digitised from a photograph or a picture drawn
by someone else, whose property is the new image? (Weckert & Adeney,
1997 p.63). Technically there is little that one can do to protect the
intellectual property attached to an original picture, image or work, other
than place the owner's name and date on the work.
The Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) protects original expression from
unauthorised reproduction or adaptation. The introduction of the
Copyright Amendment Act 1984 (Cth) ensured that full protection for
computer programs as literary works was provided (Webber 2000 p.22).
Unfortunately the protection of computer programs is not the only issue
with on-line education. One major current source of piracy involves web
sites, which specialise in illegal copies of software. It is estimated that
there are 500,000 pages of illegal software on the web (Young 2000). The
Business Software Association of Australia (BSAA) estimates lost sales to
the Australian software industry amounts to $280 million each year
(Young 2000). Lost sales for local retailers may amount to the same
Ethics in the Curricula
Many researchers and educators agree that ethics should be integrated into
computer courses instead of being attained, through haphazard experience,
slowly and inefficiently on the job (Burmeister & Simpson 1999;
Gotterbarn 1998; Johnson 1984; Maner 1978; Staehr 1999; Weizenbaum
1976). Grodzinsky & Schulze (1996) found that subject modules on
software ownership, hacking, abuse, and security can be introduced in
introductory computer courses. As student sophistication develops, natural
integration of other ethical topics can be made into more advanced
subjects. In her study, Athey (1994) signals to educators that students do
not agree about right and wrong behaviour, and agrees that ethics needs to
be discussed and debated in the classroom.
In an on-line education situation, the inclusion of a computer policy that
covers acceptable use guidelines is a simple addition to a web-site. On-line
discussion / chat groups guided by educators are eminently suited to the
provision of various scenarios about security, copyright and ethics.
Scenarios about the ethics of manipulating images, breaking into computer
systems, copying software for various purposes and copying images and
other intellectual property abound in literature (DeJoie et al. 1991; Parker
et al.1990; Weckert & Adeney 1997). Short videos or animations,
including hypotheticals of ethical and professional behaviour, can be
created as an assessment item, then re-used with student permission for
Educators and technical administrators have a moral responsibility to
encourage students to clarify their understanding of the law and form
ethical viewpoints before they enter the workforce. Although employers
may have computer ethics policies in place, it is desirable for new
computing professionals to have strong ethics and legal training as a
Student Perceptions of Ethics and the Law
An unpublished study, which gathered data on student perceptions of legal
and ethical actions, was conducted by the author in 1998. The survey,
completed by 417 students, contained questions about copyright issues
including the legality of copying commercial software and ethical
perceptions of that action. The students were also asked questions about
intellectual property issues including copying information from the
internet or from other sources without giving recognition. Results of the
responses to the research questions, are shown in Tables 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The students surveyed were from senior high schools (82 students), TAFE
(162) and Universities (173) that were geographically situated in North
Eastern Australia (Mackay Queensland in the north, to Sydney NSW in
the south). All students were studying computing as a major part of their
program. Table 1 shows student responses by course to the legality of
Legal p erception - Copy
Soft ware for education
Neither / Unsure
Table 1: Copy Software for educational use by Course
Students were asked to indicate whether they believe an activity to be
legal or illegal (Table 1 & 2). In another section of the questionnaire they
were asked to indicate their ethical perception of the activity (Tables 2, 3
& 4). The following activities were listed:
Copy commercial software instead of buying it, then
use it for educational purposes.
Use information from the internet without giving
Use information from another source without giving
There is no significant difference between legal perceptions of students in
different sectors (shown in Table 1), although the figures show that high
school students are slightly less aware of the legality of copying software
for educational use.
Ethic al perception - Copy s oftware for education us e only
ethic al or
E thic al
Legal perception -
Copy Software for
educ ation use
Table 2: Legal perception vs Ethical perception - Copy software for
Of the total (417) students surveyed, 88 (21.1%) perceived that copying
software for educational use was legal, despite the existence of the
Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) and the Copyright Amendment Act 1984 (Cth).
Even more disturbing is that 27 of those students felt that it was also
ethical or highly ethical to use the software for educational purposes.
Responses in Table 2 show that a total of 139 students (33.3%) do not
perceive that copying, then using software for education purposes, is
illegal. This provides a strong case for further education on aspects of
copyright laws. Further evidence of this is apparent in Tables 3 and 4.
Table 2 also highlights a strange phenomenon where a number of students
(42 students – 15%) that they believe that copying software is illegal but
also percieve that the activity is either ethical or highly ethical. Forcht
(cited in DeJoie et al, 1991 p.58) notes this same behaviour and likens the
situation to ‘not fully divulging information for income tax purposes – in
some people’s minds, they tend to rationalize that “everyone does it”, thus
absolving themselves of personal guilt’.
E thic al - Us e info from internet without giving recognition
Legal - Us e info
Neither / Unsure
Table 3: Legal vs Ethical - Use information from the Internet with giving
Student perceptions of the legality of copying information from the
internet without giving recognition (shown in table 3), can be compared
with Table 4 which shows student perceptions of copying information
from other sources without giving recognition. Table 4 shows that 74.6%
of students perceive copying from other sources as illegal, but only 63.7%
perceive copying from the internet (Table 3) as illegal with the remainder
of students perceiving that it is either legal or being unsure of the legality
of the action.
E thical - Use info from another s ource without giving
ethic al or
Legal - Use info
sourc e without
giving rec ognition
Neither / Unsure
Table 4: Legal vs Ethical - Use information from another source without
It can be seen, when comparing Table 3 and Table 4 that the surveyed
students do not have as much respect for information that is stored on the
internet. Perhaps ownership of information, which is displayed on the
internet and other digital media, is not stated as strongly as that in books
Other studies have shown similar results to the figures presented in Tables
1 to 4. Athey (1994) found that university students had very poor attitudes
toward software copying. Cohen & Cornwell (1989) showed that a
significant proportion of university students believed that it was
acceptable to pirate software. The results of the study by Chaney & Simon
(1994) showed ‘only 33% of students surveyed recognized that making
copies of business software for personal use is unethical’. They suggested
that ‘students might benefit from planned instruction related to ethical
There are few methods available to technical staff at educational
institutions to reduce the incidence of copyright breaches by staff and
students. One of the major tools is the availability of a computer usage
policy for all members of the organisation. All new staff and students
should be introduced to the policy to inform them about acceptable use of
computers in the organisation, and the measures that can be taken by
technical staff to ensure adherence to the usage rules. When a computer
usage policy is in place, from a technical perspective, there are then a
number of avenues that allow enforcement of the policy.
On initial contact, computer users are given an orientation on use of the
computer system. The orientation can apply equally to staff and students.
It introduces the user to the login procedure, storage facilities, space
limitations, and acceptable usage rules of the organisation. Computer users
are familiarised with programs that are used by system administrators to
check workstation activity from time-to-time. They are also advised that
random file scanning will occur regularly.
A number of software applications allow a system administrator to control
security issues on networks. As stated previously it is impossible, from a
technical computer aspect, to control the copying and/or manipulation of
intellectual property such as literature, images, or even look-and-feel. It is
however possible to reduce the incidence of copying of licensed software
and to protect students’ intellectual property.
The use of a secure network operating system, such as Novell® Netware
Operating System or Microsoft® Windows NT®, or security software for
Macintosh computers, such as Mac Administrator, allow system
administrators to protect software and data, by denying access to computer
users. Parts of programs can be hidden from view, to prevent the
unauthorised copying of installed software applications. Software which is
installed on network servers can be protected by a facility that allows the
software to be tagged “copy inhibit”.
Use of “user groups” in Windows NT® allows control of various in-built
utility programs within the operating system. System administrators can
restrict use of tools such as the registry editor, to prevent students from
over-riding or disabling security software.
Workstation viewing applications, such as VNC (Virtual Network
Computing) can be used by system administrators to deter students from
performing actions that do not conform with the computer usage policy.
Remembering that students are informed about observation by computing
staff when first introduced to their studies, students who are suspected of
inappropriate computer usage, may have their workstation screen viewed
remotely. If a student is found to be using the computer inappropriately,
action can be taken ranging from, a simple movement of their mouse
pointer by the administrator, to the disabling of their computer account.
User storage space restrictions are imposed for various reasons. Server
hard disk space is the primary reason for limitations, but an underlying
motive is to restrict space for the storage of illegally down-loaded or
copied software. The computer usage policy states that “the storage or use
of non-educational software is not permitted”, therefore random file
searches in data storage areas, using *.exe or *.img for example, are
carried out periodically. *.exe will produce a list of executable programs
which may or may not be educational. *.img or *.jpg produces a list of
images that can be randomly viewed for inappropriate content.
Finally, where there are no intellectual property issues, students are
provided with a common storage area, to enable them to share and swap
files and data. For assignment work, where an element of intellectual
property exists, a separate secure storage area is provided. Files can be
written by all students, but cannot be viewed, altered or deleted by
students once data is placed in this area.
Legal and ethical issues in computing are proliferating, especially in the
context of the internet. With the number of new computer users increasing
daily, it is difficult to inform the general computer user population of
copyright issues. It is vital that all educators realise the pervasiveness of
computing and take steps to provide acceptable use guidelines for all
students in all disciplines, as it is clear, from a technical standpoint, that
there is currently little that can be done to protect intellectual property.
It has been shown that the majority of students, in this study, are aware of
copyright issues and they perceive relationships between illegal and
unethical issues. There is concern for the remaining 33% of students who
are unsure of their legal and ethical responsibilities. Therefore educational
institutions face a huge challenge to find ways to protect intellectual
property contained in on-line materials, multimedia developments and
It has been argued that educators and administrators have a moral
responsibility to encourage students to think about their legal and ethical
obligations to prepare them for employment as computing professionals.
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Copyright © 2000 Leone Woodcock
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