A friend passed on this Telegraph story about how 200 students in a Strategic Management class at the University of Central Florida came forward to admit to "cheating" on the midterm exam after the professor in the class, Richard Quinn, gave a lecture where he noted the evidence that about 1/3 of the 600 student class had "cheated" on the exam. He then gave them an option: saying that, if they admitted to cheating within a week,re they would be able to complete the class and the incident would not go on their record and they would not face discipline (they also had to take an ethics class). If they did not, and they were still caught, then they could face expulsion for violating academic integrity policies. You can watch the video of the lecture here:
Not surprisingly, the story of 200 students "turning themselves over" made all sorts of headlines. It's a good story of "cheaters" being pressured into 'fessing up... right? It's leading to typical hand-wringing stories about what should we do about cheating in schools. But, as I watched the video, the whole thing started to feel just a little bit off... My main interest was to learn two things: (1) what the students did to cheat and (2) how the professor was identifying who cheated. Both points seemed like pertinent details.
The answer to that first one surprised me. The "cheating" was that students got their hands on the textbook publisher's "testbank" of questions. Many publishers have a testbank that professors can use as sample test questions. But watching Quinn's video, it became clear that in accusing his students of "cheating" he was really admitting that he wasn't actually writing his own tests, but merely pulling questions from a testbank. That struck me as odd -- and I wasn't really sure that what the students did should count as cheating. Taking "sample tests" is a very good way to learn material, and going through a testbank is a good way to practice "sample" questions. It seemed like the bigger issue wasn't what the students did... but what the professor did.
In looking around, it looks like a lot of the students agree. They're saying that the real issue is that Prof. Quinn simply copied questions from the publisher, rather than actually recreating his own test, and noting that this seems like a massive double standard. The professor is allowed to just copy questions from others for his tests? In fact, some of the students have put together a video pointing out that, at the beginning of the year, Prof. Quinn claimed that he had written the test questions himself. As the article notes:
Can the UCF students be blamed for using all the available tools to study for the test? How were the students to know that Quinn would take his questions from the test bank, when he explicitly said that professors do not do so any more? Moreover, why did Quinn tell his students that he is the one who creates the mid-term and final exams, when in fact it wasn’t so?
The students have put together a video pointing out where he said (in the first lecture) that he writes the questions himself:
The local student news operation sent a reporter to speak to Quinn and ask him about the double standard and his copying of questions, and Quinn totally ignored him:
Now, there's a pretty good chance that some of the students probably knew that Quinn was a lazy professor, who just used testbank questions, rather than writing his own. That's the kind of information that tends to get around. But it's still not clear that using testbank questions to study is really an ethical lapse. Taking sample tests is a good way to practice for an exam and to learn the subject matter. And while those 200 students "confessed," it seems like they did so mainly to avoid getting kicked out of school -- not because they really feel they did anything wrong -- and I might have to agree with them.
We've seen plenty of stories over the years about professors trying to keep up with modern technology -- and I recognize that it's difficult to keep creating new exams for classes. But in this case, it looks like Prof. Quinn barely created anything at all. He just pulled questions from a source that the students had access to as well and copied them verbatim. It would seem that, even if you think the students did wrong here, the Professor was equally negligent. Will he have to sit through an ethics class too?
There was some attention last week, to the fact that Digg had apparently allowed BP to step in as a sponsor on the site -- and I do admit that, at a first pass, the image presented does not look good:
The article uses this example to suggest just how desperate Digg has become in the wake of its redesign, which resulted in many users revolting or going elsewhere. However, Chas Edwards from Digg, actually makes a pretty good point in responding to the article, in noting, first that the BP catastrophe is horrifying:
The deaths, the images of oil-soaked birds, and the enormous environmental and economic tragedy they symbolize, are deeply painful. For people above a certain age, they likely trigger traumatic memories of another gigantic and horrifying oil spill, when the captain and crew of the Exxon Valdez tanker crashed in waters off Alaska and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.
Edwards points out that there are always issues in ad-supported media, but the mocking tone was unnecessary and somewhat hypocritical given The Atlantic's own sponsorship practices.
At times, we've had the same sort of debate here. Do we take advertising money from companies we disagree with over certain things? There's one argument that says that you should never agree to allow advertising from a company you disagree with. The flip-side might be that if a company you don't like wants to give it's money to you, perhaps you can put their money to much better use. In the end, I tend to view it in the same manner as I view censorship of unpopular speech: I'd rather let everything be out in the open, clearly stated, rather than trying to suppress views.
When I was in Germany recently, speaking at an event, a German guy in the audience got up and read aloud a comment on Techdirt that said less-than-nice things about Germans, and demanded to know why I had not deleted the comment (noting that, under German law, I was legally responsible for those comments). Beyond the ridiculousness of German law that puts the liability on third parties for others' speech, I noted that free speech means allowing free speech for all -- and if that includes ignorant speech, it's better to let that ignorance out into the open where it can be countered and responded to, rather than trying to hide it and delete it. I said that blocking or simply deleting such speech only reinforces the ideas of those who make such speech that they're saying something so "truthful" the world can't bear to hear it. I don't think that pushes the conversation forward.
Now, obviously, advertising is not the same kind of "speech" as discussed in the paragraph above, but there is something to be said for allowing companies to advertise in an open manner, and allowing the discussion to then occur, even about that advertising -- something Digg tends to encourage openly. It's been said that the best response to speech you don't like isn't censorship, but more speech -- and I would argue that applies to advertising as well. Now, I'm sure some will cynically say that, of course anyone who accepts advertising will want to accept whatever ads they can to make money. But I think that sites like Digg, which have been pretty careful not to go down the road of really annoying advertising, show that they won't just do anything for money.
Plenty of newspapers who covered the BP oil spill -- including the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal -- all accepted advertising from BP in the wake of the spill. I didn't see any sanctimonious articles condemning any of them for doing so. It may be tempting, at a gut level, to suggest this is somehow "wrong," but I think I'd rather BP was out there trying to talk to people -- and letting the people talk back -- than being told it can't spend its money that way at all.
from the apparently,-someone-failed-their-legal-merit-badge dept
Four years ago, the MPAA worked with the local Los Angeles chapter of the Boy Scouts of America to create a special "activity patch" for Boy Scouts to repeat propaganda about how evil file sharing is. For some reason, that story got renewed attention earlier this year, when a few sources came across the 2006 story without checking the date on it. While there's really nothing new on that story, it does appear that the Boy Scouts are making some absolutely ridiculous suggestions to parents about how to talk to your kids about copyright issues.
That link is to an article in the latest issue of Scouting Magazine, supposedly about the "ethics" of file sharing, and how parents should talk to their children about it. And, yet, it's entirely one-sided, quoting the RIAA's claims about "losses," but oddly leaving out the stacks upon stacks upon stacks upon stacks of research showing that musicians are making more money these days, via alternative business models. You would think that would be a relevant part of the discussion... but it's totally absent. Someone, apparently, failed their "research the facts" merit badge.
But where the article goes totally off the rails is in telling parents that their children are too stupid to understand the nuances of copyright law, and because of that, they should take an extreme position: one so extreme that they shouldn't even listen to legally burned CDs:
So how can Scouters teach ethical behavior related to music downloading? One way: Set a good example. When you haul around Scouts in your car, for example, only play CDs that you've purchased. If you play CDs that you've burned--even if they're legal--your Scouts may not recognize the difference between those and the pirated CDs friends have given them.
The article also tries to blame musicians who embrace alternative business models for making the situation more confusing:
Part of the problem, [Dr. Tony] Aretz says, lies in the Internet's free-for-all nature, where users get all sorts of content free--even information from newspapers that they would have to pay for in the real world. Bands like Radiohead have further complicated the situation by giving their music away or offering it on a "pay what you want" basis.
Note to Aretz and Scouting magazine: the internet is the real world too. And bands like Radiohead haven't "further complicated the situation." They've helped make it clear that there are smart business models that can be embraced while not turning your fans into criminals. It would seem like that's a rather important lesson one should teach Boy Scouts.
For many years I've argued that the economics of abundance is not a moral issue. This is in response to the typical moral and ethical arguments in favor of things like excessive copyright or patent law, with normative claims about how we must protect artists' or inventors' creations for moral reasons, in that it would somehow be "unfair" to have others make use of their creations or inventions. My argument, in response, has always been that the role of morality is in determining a different level of fairness, it's determining the allocation of harm. In other words, moral questions come up when there is a choice over who gets harmed. If you're in a situation where no one gets harmed, then there should be no moral question. So, in approaching an issue like intellectual property, my argument is that if you can create a solution in which the economics allow a greatly increased opportunity for everyone, then you preempt the moral question. Since everyone has a chance to be better off, if you understand the economics and apply it properly, then the only issue is one of economics -- how to best achieve that goal -- rather than morality.
However, if it's true that by doing away with the idea of intellectual property, you create greater opportunities for everyone, could you make the argument that intellectual property laws themselves are immoral or unethical in that they are actually what makes everyone worse off? Could you make the argument that by restricting the use of certain resources and restricting freedom of expression, those laws lead to unethical limitations? Put another way, if intellectual property is causing actual harm, then you could make the claim that there is a moral issue in discussing them -- in that the laws of intellectual property, by themselves, are immoral. That is, if taking away IP causes no direct harm, then there's no moral issue to discuss. But, if leaving them in place does cause harm, then that is a moral issue worth considering.
It's really not something that I had thought about, but Stephan Kinsella points us to a recent talk given by David Koepsell, who not so long ago wrote a book, Who Owns You?, all about the serious problems in patenting genes. I've actually had a few email conversations with Koepsell over the past few months, and it's worth paying attention to what he has to say. He's very deliberate and careful in his work, supporting his positions with deep levels of analysis and evidence. This talk appears to be a new area that he's taking on, trying to make the case that all intellectual property is, by its very nature, unethical:
Now, I will be the first to admit that the talk itself is a bit dry at parts and rough around the edges, and at times seems to go off on tangents. But it certainly has some potential. The argument uses different language than we use here to describe some points, but they map back to the points we discuss on a regular basis pretty easily. He talks about the difference between real property and intellectual property, in that real property concepts predate the law -- predate "institutions" -- because of the brute facts of the situation. If you possess a physical good, there need not be any law saying that you are excluding others from using it. You have it. But if it's an idea or an expression, you need an institution or a law to try to exclude it from others. Effectively, he's distinguishing between what we refer to as scarce goods and infinite goods. Scarce goods, by their nature, are rivalrous and excludable. Infinite goods are not.
He also discusses that the concept of "the commons" is too simplistic, and that there are different kinds of commons. Again, there are the commons that are created through legal or institutional necessity -- such as national parks or the highway system. Without the institutions, then others would likely claim that land via possession. Keeping them as a commons is the legal attempt to avoid a "tragedy of the commons," where that property is allocated inefficiently. But, he argues, there's another type of commons as well: a commons that itself is normal that cannot be enclosed and possessed outside of the law. And that includes things like your genes, or any expression. He refers to the former as a "commons by choice," and the latter as a "commons by necessity," which is an interesting concept.
Thus, the key argument he makes is that intellectual property is an attempt to lock up the "commons by necessity," in the false belief that it is the same thing as the "commons by choice." And while he doesn't directly make this final point, what's clearly implied is this: the purpose of a commons-by-choice is to avoid the tragedy of the commons and to better allocate a scarce resource by letting everyone share it. But when we try to take a commons-by-necessity and pretend there's a tragedy of the commons when it might not exist, we actually make the allocation of resources significantly less efficient. And making a choice to limit the efficiency of a space -- such as by limiting your rights to expression or your rights to innovate or, perhaps worst of all, the rights to your own genes, you are creating harm -- and that harm is immoral.
Even the photographer was shocked that his image was modified in this manner. But what's stunning to me is that the newspaper appears to be defending the decision and not backing down:
[The] reason the delegates were removed was due to the newspaper's policy not to publish pictures of candidates running for re-election during the political season....
In the newspaper, the photo caption includes the term "photo illustration" to indicate the photo had been changed.
This is a newspaper that won't run photos of candidates running for election? It makes you wonder how they report on those elections. With illustrations? And then to claim that it's okay to edit a photograph by then calling it a "photo illustration" rather than a photo that's been edited seems a bit questionable no matter where you stand on the question of journalistic ethics.
A few weeks back, we linked to the NY Times' Ethicist, Randy Cohen, explaining why it's not unethical to download a digital copy of a book, if you'd bought a hard copy of the book -- even though it probably violates copyright law. That created quite a lot of anger from folks who felt that it was clearly an ethical violation as well. Mitch Wagner, apparently missed that kerfuffle, as he's written up a short blog post for Computerworld asking people their thoughts on the ethics of downloading media that you purchased legally:
I recently got a hankering to re-read some of my favorite books. I already own them, in hardcover and paperback. But I'd like to re-read them as e-books. Do I need to buy the e-book versions, or can I download a pirated copy of the e-book for free?
The argument that says it's wrong is pretty simple, and clear-cut: When I bought the books, I bought individual copies of the books. All I own is that one copy. If I lost the copy, I wouldn't be entitled to a free replacement. It wouldn't be right for me to shoplift the book from the local Barnes & Noble. I'd have an obligation to buy a new copy, or borrow one legitimately, before re-reading the book.
On the other hand: I already paid for these books legitimately. They're my books. The shoplifting analogy is specious, because in that case, I'm depriving the rightful owner -- the owner of the bookstore -- of their copy of the book. If I download a copy of the e-book, nobody else is deprived of their copy.
However, he goes on to make another point that also deserves some scrutiny:
Every couple of years, TiVo hiccups and fails to record a favorite TV show. In that case, I have to decide whether to wait for the show to come out on DVD, or just download the episode from the BitTorrents.
Now there will be people who will claim that, due to the fact that it likely infringes on copyright to do so, it's automatically unethical. But morality isn't determined by the law. In general, I've always argued that if the economics increase the overall market and opportunity, then there's no moral issue to speak of -- and it's hard to see how someone downloading an episode their TiVo missed would harm the overall economy in any way. But, I'm guessing that some folks here will disagree...
We recently wrote about the NY Times' ethicist, Randy Cohen, and his perceptive claim that downloading an unauthorized digital copy of a book you already own is likely illegal, but not unethical. It resulted in quite a discussion in our comments, with people taking both sides. However, an anonymous reader points us to a blog post at Mediabistro, where it appears readers sent in a whole bunch of ridiculous strawman arguments to claim that downloading such a book was clearly unethical. According to Mediabistro, not a single reader agreed with Cohen. While some commenters on the post do take the "infringement is unethical, no question" type statements to task, the blog post doesn't bother to point out the serious confusion by the complainers. Take, for example, the following:
"So, if you own the hardcover you should get the paperback for free? Different platform, right? Maybe you can use the hardcover to get into the movie version as well. That's a different platform. Maybe the audiobook as well? It's really a deeply irresponsible post. Some ethics!"
But that's missing the entire point of what Cohen said. First of all, the situation he was discussing was one where the ebooks were not even available -- so it wasn't even a question of the author losing any money. And that's the key point that Cohen is making, which seems lost on the people attacking him. Morality only really comes into play when there's a question of who wins and who loses. When you need to make such a choice, that's a moral question. If there are no losers, there's no moral question to deal with. What Cohen is pointing out -- quite accurately and ethically -- is that in a scenario in which there is no loss, but only gain, then it cannot be seen as unethical. What the person above was stating is totally different. In each of those examples there is a real loss. Something scarce is taken, and that means others can't have it. But with the ebook of a book that hasn't been released in that format, that's not even a question.
It's really a question of whether or not you should be allowed to format change the works you've purchased, and there are many reasonable arguments in favor of that -- especially in situations where there is no loss in the system.
davebarnes points us to a recent response by the NYTimes' ethicist, Randy Cohen, to a reader question, over the ethics of downloading an unauthorized ebook of a book where he already owned the physical book. Cohen, in no uncertain terms, points out that while illegal, it should not be seen as unethical, and suggests that the law needs to catch up with technology:
An illegal download is -- to use an ugly word -- illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you've violated the publishing company's legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you've done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
He goes on to quote a publishing exec who disagrees, insisting that any unauthorized download is "stealing" and warns Cohen: "to condone this is to condone theft." But, of course, that's ridiculous. It is not theft at all. Nothing is missing. No one has lost out on anything. The publisher already got its money from this guy. To have a publisher make a statement that is clearly false makes you wonder what sort of strategic direction that publisher is heading in. If they can't understand the difference between someone who already paid just downloading a digital copy, and someone "stealing" a book, they're never going to understand how to compete in a digital world.
Thankfully, Cohen makes this same point, in noting (in response to the publisher): "it is a curious sort of theft that involves actually paying for a book."
"I would discourage doctors from participating in any form of social networking, but if they do, I would encourage them to privatize their information."
The other big concern is that doctors are told not to look up info on patients on social networking sites or to friend patients. While there are obvious pitfalls there, my guess is that the younger generation of doctors will figure out a more balanced means of still using social networking sites without causing serious ethical problems.
We often see critics or industry folks make absolute statements like, "copyright infringement is stealing and it's bad." Of course, this is wrong for any number of reasons, but rather than jumping all the way to why such statements are obviously wrong and misleading, why not peel back that onion one layer at a time. Ross Pruden points us to an interesting blog post by Luci Temple, where she begins the process of questioning the assumptions around "piracy is bad." It starts out with that premise (it's bad!) and then starts asking questions:
Purchaser: This person has already paid for a legal copy of the film. Now, the Purchaser might want to do a number of things that are technically in breach of copyright:
a) Burn a copy of the dvd for personal use, so that their original copy won't get scratched.
b) Create a digital copy for use on a portable MP4 player, media gate, or computer.
c) Lend the burned dvd to a friend for their personal use (their friend being a Previewer).
d) Lend the digital copy to a friend for personal use (which actually involves making another digital copy).
All these things are technically acts of "piracy," however, are they all morally "wrong"? Is copyright law applicable to the mores of the digital age, or does it need to be updated?
She goes on to discuss "lending" to a friend, noting how it's fine to lend a physical copy, but why not a digital copy? The thing is, the more you play this game, the more you'll realize how many situations that are automatically lumped in with what's considered "bad," almost certainly aren't "bad" in anyway at all.