Plagiarism wrong, piracy okay believe many university students

Many Canadian university students, who would be indignant if someone plagiarized their own work, apparently have no qualms about acquiring and using pirated software, a recent survey reveals.

The Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft (CAAST) that conducted the survey calls this a double standard. But others beg to differ.

Among other things CAAST measured behaviours and attitudes towards software piracy of 3,000 college and university students across Canada. This sample group included 500 students identified as computer science majors. Half the students surveyed admitted to acquiring software without paying for it.

When asked how they would feel if someone plagiarized their work, 87 per cent said it would be a serious issue. Only 40 per cent feel the same about using pirated software.

This apparent disconnect is stronger among computer science students. Eighty-three per cent feel very strongly about someone stealing their own intellectual property, yet nearly two-thirds admit to downloading commercial software from the Internet without paying for it – compared with 46 per cent of students in other fields.

Such views and actions, says a piracy prevention expert, are both skewed and shortsighted.

These students aren’t considering the implications to their own future livelihood, according to Debbi Mayster, communications manager at the Business Software Alliance (BSA), CAAST’s American affiliate. “It means fewer dollars are available to the software industry to put into research and development, and hence [fewer] jobs for software developers, engineers and programmers.”

The survey’s findings are alarming, says Mayster, and indicate a need to change unethical attitudes and behaviours in university students. “These are our future business leaders. We need to raise awareness now, before they enter the business world.”

To this end, CAAST is launching a university awareness campaign dubbed ‘Define the Line’ to educate students and reinforce the message that piracy is wrong.

But G. Elijah Dann, who teaches business ethics and philosophy courses at the University of Toronto, disagrees with CAAST’s logic.

“CAAST says there’s a disconnect in students’ attitudes because they believe plagiarism is wrong but nevertheless pirate software – but I would say this is a false analogy.”

He argues that students are right to see a difference between stealing someone else’s work and claiming it as your own, and duplicating works created by corporations that make billions in profit, and using them on private machines for personal use.

“They are just replicating the item, not taking it so no one else can use it,” says Dann. Moreover, they don’t copy the software for their own profit, he says. “I’ve never run across a friend or student who would ever say, I have this software and I’ll sell it to you. They willingly share it because they know it helps…the common good.”

The university study did not track financial losses to the software industry due to student piracy, but a previous CAAST study claimed that overall, software piracy cost the Canadian economy $1.1-billion in lost retail sales of software in 2004.

Dann believes CAAST is likely exaggerating the losses, and that its claim – even if true – raises a broader question. “If software companies are able to withstand such huge losses [caused by] piracy, then how much profit are they making in the first place? Students smell a rat.They realize the software industry is vast.”

Students may be morally relativistic but they do have a good sense of justice, Dann says. Their perception is that software companies cry foul about piracy, but make billions by controlling a commodity.

According to Dann, corporations often think they can treat ethics like a buffet. “They go to the ‘ethical buffet’ and pick and choose what they like that’s in their interests. But when people on the other side of the buffet do things that affect them, they ignore their claims. My challenge to them would be, if you want to talk ethics, move away from the buffet table and sit down with the broader community in which you live and talk about corporate ethics with all stakeholders.” says Dann.

Broader issues of economic justice should be considered, he says. For example, the high cost of software gives students from richer families an economic advantage over poorer ones.

Although most universities offer computer labs where students can use software, the cumulative effects on poorer students who have to work part-time, take the bus and spend time in labs to get a university education gives richer students a competitive edge that is unfair, he says.

“I have full sympathy for poorer kids. In fact, if one came to me and said, listen, you’re the ethics professor – I can’t afford this software, should I pirate it? I’d say, by all means do.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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