Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Copyright Code of Ethics in e-Learning

With the rapid expansion of the field of e-learning in the last ten years educational institutions are faced with a major ethical dilemma: how to adapt current copyright legislation to fit the new e-learning phenomenon. Digital rights management is a field that is not legislatively mature and in Canada, like most other jurisdictions, copyright laws pertaining to printed works are adapted when assessing copyright restrictions of digital works; however, the practical aspects of how to implement this adaptation has proven to be challenging.

Ethics is the study of morals and moral interaction between people involves positive, constructive and respectful communication and interchange (Jones, 2001). In the field of electronic publishing this moral interaction must be upheld despite the absence of suitable supporting legislation. The maturation of the Internet has challenged these morals. Hundreds of thousands of web pages are updated daily, and a significant number of them infringe upon the digital rights of others. The simple borrowing of an image, plagiarism of a paragraph or reproduction of an idea without citation is thought by some to be acceptable practise on the Internet. Phrases like “if it’s online, it’s free for me to download and use,” and “if I cite the author I can reproduce her work entirely on my website” are not uncommon statements when discussions arise about this topic. In addition, compounding the confusion in the field of e-learning is the belief by some practitioners that since they operate in the educational sphere they are exempt from considering any copyright issues because of the lack of any personal financial gain (Alfino, 1996). Although many educational uses of media do fall under the “fair use” category, the extreme view that no consideration is necessary is a common myth (Coggins, n.d.a.). Also, with the recent advent of universally accessible personal publishing technology on the Internet in the form of web logs, or blogs, the digital rights management envelope continues to be pushed further. Most “bloggers” do not hesitate to “deep link” into other blog posts or into web pages on commercial websites even though proper practice necessitates requesting the permission of the original author for this (Coggins, n.d.b.; “Website Permissions”, n.d.). The belief by some that explicitly requesting such permissions impedes the natural and public nature of the integrated publishing system of the World Wide Web is very real.

As members of the e-learning community, what are our responsibilities towards the ethics of digital rights management? The following “Code of Ethics” can be useful:
  1. Consult in-house first. When faced with a situation you have never encountered, consult with others at your institution. Whether it is the digitization of an image from a textbook, a deep link to a specific web page or the repurposing of an author’s work for your classroom website, ask someone on your staff for their opinion first.

  2. Consult with the experts. In Canada, consult with commercial copyright clearing houses like Access Copyright, or their license holders, when faced with any new, complicated or confusing copyright issues. Their expert knowledge can be very useful despite the lack of comprehensive digital rights legislation and the consultation is usually free of charge.

  3. Work with textbook publishers if you can. Publishers have been dealing with requests to reproduce their materials for decades and as demands for the digitization and repurposing of their resources into e-learning content become more and more frequent, they have adapted accordingly. They can often directly grant permission to repurpose figures and diagrams from their textbooks for integration into custom electronic courseware at reasonable costs.

  4. Start early! In order to avoid the temptation to “cut corners” due to looming deadlines for your project, plan ahead and complete the copyright research early in your e-learning development.

  5. Actively dispel the copyright myths. Share your experiences and your knowledge gained with other staff at your institution. Many of these situations are reproducible, and it is very likely that others will need to clear copyright obstacles in similar ways. By sharing your knowledge you build efficiency, effectiveness and ethical responsibility in your organization.
Instructional designers, subject matter experts, editors, graphic designers, courseware developers and desktop publishers are all faced with similar issues regarding the ethics of digital rights management when developing e-learning products. It is the moral responsibility of each of these professionals to respect the original creator’s rights at all times and until digital copyright legislation matures, the dialogue must continue to be fostered between all those concerned in order attain this goal.


Alfino, M. (1996). Intellectual Property and Copyright Ethics. In R. A. Larmer (Ed.), Ethics in the Workplace: Selected Readings in Business Ethics. (pp. 278-294). St. Paul: West Publishing Company.

Coggins, S. A. M. (n.d.a). 4 Basic Questions About Copyright and Weblogs. Retrieved January 31, 2004, from http://weblogs.about.com/od/issuesanddiscussions/a/copyrightblogs.htm

Coggins, S. A. M. (n.d.b). 14 Copyright Tips for Bloggers. Retrieved January 31, 2004, from http://weblogs.about.com/od/issuesanddiscussions/a/copyrighttips.htm

Jones, J. R. (2001). Everyday Ethics: For Career and Personal Development. Toronto: Pearson.

Website Permissions. (n.d.). In Copyright & Fair Use Overview (Chap. 6). Retrieved January 31, 2004, from http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/ chapter6/index.html

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