Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The slippery slope of the digital age

My daughter started her facebook account almost two years ago, right after she graduated from middle school. She had already had her share of myspace and bebo accounts. And we had had our share of discussions and close-calls regarding what kind of information you share online. Like, don't put pictures of yourself up on the web that make you look like a skank.

I thought I had covered all my bases regarding parenting in the digital age. But there was one (really) big point I hadn't thought of: copyright infringement.

It seems innocent enough, right? A teenager really likes a picture of themselves, one that was taken at a studio. So they take a picture of it with their digital camera or cell phone and then post it to the web. If they're really sophisticated, they'll scan the picture. But...this is theft.

We had breached the topic during my daughter's 8th grade year. Her middle school was putting on The Sound of Music. The parent producer took orders ahead-of-time for video copies of the performance. It was well known that the profits from such sales went towards funding the next year's production. But there was a snag. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Library explicitly prohibits such recordings, audio or video, from being made for any reason. I'm not sure how the parent producer didn't know this, but I sure wasn't going to participate in something that I knew was copyright infringement. My daughter was confused and sure there must be a mistake. Afterall, parents don't do things that they know are wrong, right?

It's the slippery slope that we start down once we start bending the rules. I mean, what difference does it make whether I share this photo with my friends on facebook? Or reprint it on my printer at home to send to family? Or borrow my friends CD recordings to make copies for myself?

It took a bit of thinking on my part to figure out what our household should do. Should we live by the letter of the law or should we allow ourselves to fudge things once in awhile?

I chose to live by the letter of the law. I did so because I wanted to make sure my kids knew that lying and/or stealing is not ok, no matter what.

It's easy when our kids are young:

Did you hit your sister?


I saw you hit your sister. Lying is wrong.

It gets a little trickier when they get older. You're at Sears or JCPenney getting portraits taken and they have a price tag for having the digital images prepared for you and giving you the copyright. But you know that you can order only a few and then scan the images and make as many prints as you want at home. And you can put them up on facebook. And no one will know because you have your privacy settings done correctly. So your teen asks you if she can put her pictures up as her profile picture.

To justify it, say this. We live in Michigan and we're in a massive recession. Times are hard and no one can afford that copyright price. And no one really pays it. It's only there so that the store can make up their losses on people like me who are more tech-savvy.

[insert sound of screeching brakes here]


With that, I taught my daughter that it's ok to steal and lie and cheat just as long as you don't get caught. In my opinion, it's the worst thing I want to teach my children.

It was there that I realized the little things do matter.
  • It does matter that Sears portrait studio owns the digital image to the cute picture you want to share with your friends on facebook.
  • It does matter that you're not supposed to copy music recordings even though you can pull it off technologically.
  • It does matter that MySpace and Facebook doesn't allow individuals younger than 14 years old to have an account.
  • It does matter that movie ratings should reflect the age of the viewer, regardless of whether that nascent viewer has seen worse content.
  • It does matter that the legal age to light a cigarette is 18.
  • It does matter that the legal drinking age is 21.
See how the slippery slope can lead you down the wrong path? How can I tell my children that honesty and integrity matter in one context but not in another? That theft is ok as long as you're not stealing something that you can touch?

Most people don't worry about too much. It's like buying knock-off Gucci bags in New York City. You do it fast and quick and easy and no one gets hurt. But I realized that someone DOES get hurt. My child's ability to form sound ethics is hurt, and that is a huge problem.

So we don't post pictures to facebook, or share them on email, or print them and hang them in our home, unless we have paid for the print or the right to reproduce the image. I would wholeheartedly encourage every parent to adopt the same policy for their house rules.


Heather said...

I stopped taking my kids to portrait studios because it is so expensive. I take their portraits myself...no worries about copyright then! ;)

Heather T said...

Right, Heather! This is a much better way of dealing with the situation of photographs of family.

I see the situation come up much more often with non-free-domain images on the internet being used rampantly by kids. I am always surprised at how quickly kids get their hands on copyrighted material and think it's fine to use it without permission. I think kids have a difficult time figuring out what's right and wrong if the adults around them don't know themselves or when the adults choose to bend/break the rules. So every time a kid sees adults sharing mpg files or scanning copyrighted photos or anything else, they learn that it's fine to do that as long as you have the technology to do it.