Monday, October 22, 2012

What's a Tech Teacher to do: Pirated Software

  I ran into a very interesting struggle as I was working with my Juniors. I wanted to see if anyone could successfully log into the Minecraft server I had set up so I asked them who had a copy of Minecraft. About half a dozen hands shot up. So I asked if one of them could log into my server. One student stopped to ask if he needed a legal copy of Minecraft to log in. When I told the class that the server was an account verified server suddenly there wasn't anyone able with an account that could log in.
  Interesting factoid #1: 1/3 of my students have a copy of Minecraft. None of them have paid for it. I then found myself having to ask my other classes if anyone had a "legal" copy of Minecraft. Surprisingly enough, it was the 6th graders who had a number of students (3) with actual legal accounts.
  Interesting factoid #2: The most common response I got to my question about a legal copy was "oh, no, mine's not legal". Students were open and ready to admit that their software was acquired through less than savory channels. The simple fact that I had to ask about a legal copy indicates an interesting posture on the use of pirated software.
Teaching with Regards to Pirating
  So where does this leave us as teachers of technology. I can't be the teacher who ignorantly preaches total opposition alcohol while going home to drink a glass of wine. I can't just say it's bad don't do it. I also can't really discuss the legal implications of taking this action. Students already know their actions are illegal, it is evident in their language. Realistically teaching the about the punishment if they're caught won't really work either as the chances of an individual getting busted for pirating software is incredibly low.
  So what can I teach? In the end I'm forced to view pirating software much like speeding. It's possible to get busted for it, but that's not where the real danger lies. The issue with speeding is that it is dangerous. This doesn't mean that people don't speed. It means that they need to understand what it means to speed, how much danger it puts them in, and how to react when something does wrong. Most of us would barely call speeding illegal. It is more of something we could get in trouble for but is totally okay to do.
  There are a few very valuable lessons that can be taught surrounding pirated software that go beyond "it's bad, mmkay?". This is necessary primarily because attempting to oppose pirating on a purely moral basis simply won't work. Speeding is illegal because it puts others in danger and ourselves. We know this, but that alone doesn't change the behavior.

The Teaching Points on Pirated Software
  The dangers of pirated software come from an understanding of working with people that are operating outside of the law. Much like the dangers of druggies and drug dealers. These are people that are willing to act outside of the law with regards to how they make a living. If someone is willing to evade police in order to sell drugs, they're probably willing to rip you off or steal money from you. You can't exactly report to the police that you were scammed trying to buy drugs. Similar things exist in the realm of pirated software.
  Someone who is interested in cracking software to make it publicly available may not be doing so for purely altruistic means. When you're not getting software directly from a trusted manufacturer you don't know what has been altered or imbedded in the installation files. Viruses, spyware, and other possible infections are fairly common among pirated files. Even if you find a file that looks like it is from a trusted pirate source, you don't know if someone has simply repackaged it to include a virus. However, these aren't the only dangers.
  I'm constantly reminding my students that we are on a publicly owned network. The school is publicly owned and students need to behave appropriately with its resources. The same may apply in future business situations. Students simply can't use the school network for illegal purposes. When something goes out to BitComet I get a report back and have to deal with it. Simply being aware of who has access to your network information may play a significant role in understanding the dangers of pursuing illegal activity. Especially since your home IP knows every website you've been to, every search you've made, and every file you've downloaded. The information is recorded that you have been doing something illegal. At school you might lose access to the network. At home, we don't know what the long term implications will be, but your information there simply isn't exclusively private.
  The final teaching point is the danger of using pirated software for business. While downloading a game and playing it at home poses minimal risk, creating media with illegal software can be catastrophic for a business. Personal use is a difficult thing to nail down. But a company that makes a product using illegal software is open up to much more liability than an individual using something illegally. This is why it is incredibly important that legal enterprises have legal copies of the software they are using.

  I feel that reasonable tech people can't simply teach that pirating software is wrong. This kind of moral teaching just won't go far enough to reach students. In a similar way we can't simply teach students that violence is wrong, sex is wrong and name calling is wrong. Each of these things have their place in the world. The important piece is to teach students to understand the dangers and consequences of these things. With this understanding they can find their own place in the world, rather than trying to fall into a proscribed idyllic and totally hypocritical perfect student or person.