What Piracy Means to Me

If you're a high school student, not very much...

A couple weeks ago, during a routine lesson on software licensing with one of my Introduction to Computing classes, it became very clear that my students didn't have a clue about software piracy.  Most couldn't get their heads around why it might be problematic, let alone wrong or illegal.  This of course extended to downloading movies and music, both of which were a matter of course for the vast majority of my students.

Last semester, as I was wiping out a machine that had been infested with a variety of malware, I found about 1500 songs that had been downloaded via Limewire. On another nearby machine, I found full-length movies.  Finally, during another computer shuffle, I found full copies of 64-bit Windows XP (downloaded disk images, ready to go).  Obviously, I deleted all of this software, but just as obviously, it had been downloaded with impunity.

Of course, I started blocking as many peer-to-peer applications as possible (I still haven't managed to block every port that Limewire finds its way through), but the point is that students thought nothing of downloading the files in the first place.  While still clearly a legal gray area, I have no doubt that both the students and the school could have some type of liability for all of this illegally downloaded material.

Getting back to my lesson on software licensing, many students piped in and noted that "bands make their money touring anyway."  Again, I'm struck by the idea that these students are so-called digital natives.  They didn't know a time when any song they might want to hear wasn't easily downloaded and they certainly haven't ever met anyone who was prosecuted for downloading a song. The Internet is loaded with a variety of genuinely free software; these students don't really distinguish between genuinely free and de facto free simply because there is a BitTorrent available for download.

The face of software is changing; the music and movie industries are changing; several networks now offer prime-time shows for free download.  However, despite these changes, intellectual property law still exists. If I had my students write a good old-fashioned theme paper on "What software piracy means to me," most couldn't crank out more than a couple paragraphs.  But these kids need to understand that downloading materials illegally can have a variety of implications for them, for the institution at which they are downloading the music (be it corporate, K-12, or university), and for the artists and studios that lose royalties for every download.

As educational IT staff, we certainly need to be cognizant of the potential liability, but, in a more immediate sense, we need to be aware of the incredible strain this type of activity places on network resources. While our students may not understand the concept of copyright infringement, they definitely take bandwidth for granted.  Some studies have placed usage on University networks related to file sharing as high as 85-90%.  This represents remarkable cost and is, perhaps, even more critical in a K-12 institution without bandwidth to spare.

Software piracy has many costs.  In the same way that we need to teach our students to think critically about the variety of information available on the Internet, we also need to ensure that they grasp these costs, both hidden and obvious. 

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