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June 27, 2000 Alabama/Alabama's Home on the Net

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Alabama/The Huntsville Time

UAH to offer course on Net ethics

Professor says online piracy is the same as shoplifting

Times Technology Writer

Five years ago, music professor Don Bowyer didn't feel too guilty copying software he hadn't paid for.

But now he has created his own software for teaching music, and he has produced his own jazz album. So, he understands firsthand how people who illegally copy intellectual property are stealing income from the property's developers.

Bowyer's experiences have prompted him to help teach a new class, ''Ethics on the Internet,'' at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

UAH online | Space & Technology
The Internet has made copying intellectual property extremely easy. Most people who knowingly copy pirated software, music or images online do so without imagining how other people could be hurt, said Bowyer.

''I would be flattered if someone in California likes my work enough that they want to steal it, but it's not theirs to steal,'' said Bowyer, good-naturedly. ''They should pay their $12. It's not that much.''

People aren't going to devote their lives to creativity if they can't make money to live off their popular creations, Bowyer said.

Philosophy professor Deborah Heikes and computer-science professor Harry Delugach are also helping teach the class.

''We're look at what's right and wrong, rather than at what you can get away with,'' said Heikes. ''We want to get people to think about the implications of what they do on the Internet.''

''We don't have any agenda for what we want students to believe,'' said Delugach. ''We just want students to know what they're doing, and why they're doing it, and that they don't make choices in a vacuum.''

Intellectual property obviously has a tangible value, or else millions of people wouldn't pay to buy music, software, books and movies, said Delugach.

But Delugach doesn't mind giving away free copies of software he has created for solving certain obscure computer problems. Delugach said he hasn't thought long about the economic value of his software, because he created it for fun and assumed it had a limited market.

However, a business working to sell similar software is now talking with Delugach about paying him to take his free product out of circulation, to help preserve a market for the business's product, said Delugach.

Delugach didn't say what he will choose to do, but his experience illustrates the difficulties that intellectual-property creators face when their products face free competition.

If the free competition were actually illegal copies of the creators' own creations, the creators could lose deserved income.

If creative people intentionally put free versions of their own software, music or other creations online, intending for consumers to save or share copies, then copying is OK, said the professors.

Software vendors sometimes give away free software to encourage people to buy related programs, manuals, services and technical support, said Delugach.

''This is like, 'I'll give you the car for free, but I'll charge a lot for gas, oil changes and tolls on the roads,' '' said Delugach. ''This obliges the vendor to give good service, so customers don't go elsewhere for those things.''

Further, copyright laws allow limited copying of certain intellectual property for educational use, for creating commentary on the property, and for creating parodies.

The Internet is an excellent tool for distributing intellectual property, and legitimate businesses will eventually find ways to make such online distribution a serious revenue source, said Bowyer.

But, meanwhile, people stealing property online are reducing incentives for artists and software developers to create new works, and are reducing incentives for such people to put work online, said Bowyer.

Likewise, some moviemakers are reluctant to issue their work on digital video discs, or DVDs, for fear that thieves will start selling perfect digital copies, and will cut the moviemakers out of profits, said Heikes.

Delugach compared online piracy to shoplifting. To one individual taking small items here and there, it may seem like a victimless crime, but it adds up, and increases the prices all consumers pay for goods.

One way the UAH professors hope to foster respect for intellectual property is to have students create their own intellectual property and put it on a Web site. The site and all the student work placed on it will automatically belong to UAH, instead of the students, meaning that students will, to some degree, have to cope with having their own work taken away.

The ''Ethics on the Internet'' class will be taught starting Aug. 23 during UAH's fall semester. The class will be available to honor students only.

© 2000 The Huntsville Times. Used with permission.

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