Some Educators Adopting Policies To Discourage Software Piracy

By Linda Chion-Kenney — December 12, 1984 6 min read

In an effort to curtail the illegal copying of computer software, and lure industry officials into offering attractive licensing and pricing arrangements, school officials throughout the country have established policies requiring strict adherence with the federal copyright law.

In so doing, they are addressing a problem that industry experts say threatens to endanger the fragile educational software industry, which is looking for a firm and profitable footing in a young and uncertain market.

“The potential market is too small to allow it to be eroded by unchecked and rampant software piracy,” said Carol Risher, director of copyright and new technology for the American Association of Publishers.

In fact, she added, some members of the association have said “if the piracy of software cannot be curtailed, it will be impossible for them to remain in the software publishing industry.”

Heart of the Problem

At the heart of the problem is the ease with which copyright-protected programs contained on small plastic disks, providing instructions for microcomputers, can be copied onto blank disks and endlessly duplicated. Further complications arise, legal experts say, when owners load the same piece of software into many computers, allowing several users to work simultaneously on the same program.

But the aap is heartened, Ms. Risher said, by the emergence of district and statewide policies--including those in California and West Virginia--to enforce the copyright law. About 55 of the association’s 350 members are involved in software publishing, she said.

The Copyright Law

The Congress last amended the copyright law in 1980 to allow reproduction of programs only for archival or backup purposes, or if copying is “an essential step in the utilization of the program in conjunction with the machine.”

Among those leading the copyright-enforcement movement is the International Council for Computers in Education, a professional association of computer educators with more than 40 affiliates nationwide.

The icce has developed a “Suggested District Policy on Software Copyright,” which it is promoting for adoption by state and local school boards.

The policy states that “illegal copies of copyrighted programs may not be made or used on school equipment” and that “the legal or insurance protection of the district will not be extended to employees who violate copyright laws.”

The policy further states that “the ethical and practical problems caused by software piracy will be taught” in all district schools; that efforts will be made to protect from copying software that is used on disk-sharing systems or networks; and that school principals will be responsible for enforcing the policy.

‘Cornerstone’ of Policy

“We like the icce policy because it’s a strong policy that recognizes the right of the copyright holder and the role of the teacher and the educational community in copyright enforcement,” Ms. Risher said. ''In fact, we encouraged Congress to consider the icce policy as a requirement for schools receiving federal aid for computer-literacy programs.”

Stanley E. Kehl, a Minnesota lawyer who specializes in computer law, said the icce policy is “a good policy statement about the application of copyright law to computer software, and it could easily be the cornerstone of a school policy in that area.”

Licensing Agreements

LeRoy Finkel, who headed the committee of educators and industry officials that wrote the policy, said it can also help school officials obtain attractive pricing and licensing agreements.

“I think it’s a message to publishers that here is a school district that is willing not to rip them off,” he said. “I recommend to publishers that they should consider coming up with discount plans for schools and offer them only to districts that have passed a policy along the lines of the icce policy.”

Examples of licensing agreements now available from certain software publishers, Mr. Finkel said, include those that allow buyers to make multiple copies, use software programs on computer networks, buy multiple copies at discount prices, and load the same piece of software into a number of microcomputers so that many users can work on the same program simultaneously.

The problem with these policies, he added, is that they’re “the best-kept secrets.”

According to Ms. Risher, such agreements are usually made on a case-by-case basis because software officials are not sure what effect they will have on the market.

“They would consider the license, obviously, because it’s a question of license-sale versus nothing and they’re eager to develop the market,” she said. “But there is the risk--and no one knows how great a risk--that too liberal a licensing policy could destroy the potential market.”

Nevertheless, she added, “it doesn’t hurt” for school officials to ask about possible licensing agreements.

California Adopts Policy

In an effort to encourage such agreements, the California Department of Education this fall adopted the icce policy and sent letters to district superintendents recommending that they also adopt it.

According to Wendy Harris, manager of educational technology for the department, the state may require that localities adopt the icce policy as a condition for receiving state funds for computer programs.

“We hope to stop the copying, and we hope to encourage more discount types of arrangements,” she said. “At the same time you want to quell the illegal copying of software, you have to encourage vendors to provide multicopy licenses. The two fit together.”

Other Enforcement Efforts

Other leaders in the copyright-enforcement movement include:

The West Virginia Department of Education, which last year passed a statewide policy similar to that promoted by the icce after recognizing that copyright violations contribute to higher costs and lessens the incentives for the development of good educational software.

In addition to requiring that students enrolled in the statewide educational computer network “be taught the ethical and practical problems and consequences of piracy,” the policy allows for the suspension or dismissal of school employees for insubordination if they violate the copyright law.

The state policy further requires that school employees be sent yearly reminders of their responsibility to adhere to and enforce the copyright law.

In Montgomery County, Md., students must obtain a “user card” before they are allowed to work in computer labs. To receive a card, students and their parents must agree, in writing, not to use computer-lab equipment to make copies of software and not to bring commercial software programs into the computer lab without the instructor’s permission.

Punishment for violating the agreement varies from school to school but can include suspension from the computer lab for a semester.

School officials credit the policy with enabling them to receive “larger-than-normal educational discounts” from publishers by ensuring that software will be used responsibly.

In Bloomington, Minn., one of many localities that have adopted curriculum specifically to teach computer ethics, students are asked to assume different roles. Rather than “preaching the law,” students are asked to consider the problem of illegal copying from the viewpoint of different players, including the organizer of a computer club and the manager of marketing and sales for a software corporation.

Responsibility of Educators

“We have a role model to play as educators,” said Mr. Finkel. “We should teach kids the ethics and legalities of what they’re doing.

“Once the kid leaves the school there is little or nothing we can do,” he acknowledged, “but while that child is on campus and in our classroom, we can mandate strict adherence to the law.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1984 edition of Education Week as Some Educators Adopting Policies To Discourage Software Piracy