5.5 Legal and Ethical Concerns

6 min readmay 12, 2023

Minna Chow

Minna Chow

AP Computer Science Principles ⌨️

80 resources
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The Internet gives people easy, quick, and free access to both a lot of other people and a lot of content. Computing innovations are also notorious for being used far beyond their intended purposes. If not handled well, these two facts could spell a recipe for disaster.
The widespread development and use of computing innovations raises many different types of legal and ethical concerns. One of the areas where concerns are raised is in the field of intellectual property and copyright law.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property is defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as "creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names, and images used in commerce."
Material created on a computer (ex: an image, a piece of digital art, a piece of writing) is the intellectual property of the creator who made it. Sometimes, creators sign away their rights to their intellectual property, such as when a work is made for hire. In that case, the organization the creator made a contract with owns the intellectual property rights.
In the digital age, challenges to intellectual property rights are more powerful than ever before. This is because it's very easy to access and distribute intellectual property found on the internet. Oftentimes, making a copy of a digital picture or book only takes a few button clicks. Because it's so easy to make copies, content creators often find it very, very difficult to control access to their works.
Protecting intellectual property, at its best, helps foster innovation. It makes sure that content creators get credit and/or can financially benefit from their hard work.
One of the ways intellectual property is protected is through copyright.


Copyright is the legal right that the creator of a work has to it. The WIPO defines two types of rights under copyright:
  1. Economic Rights: rights to financial benefits from the use of the work
  2. Moral Rights: rights that aren't financial, but are still important. For example, the right to claim authorship or the right to prevent harmful changes.
Copyright is not a new concept. Copyright laws have been around since the 18th century. However, the digital age has created new challenges to copyright and demands new ways to protect it as well.
🔗 Check out this primer on copyright!
Before you use or repost content from the internet, you have to consider copyright. Just because a piece of art or an image can be easily found on the internet doesn't mean that it's free to use, especially not if you're turning a profit.
Check what the copyright license is on all online content is before you use it. Some pieces of content require permission from the creator before being used. Some pieces aren't allowed to be used for financial purposes. Even if this isn't the case, you should always cite any material you use that you didn't create as good practice.
Using content created by someone else without permission or citation can have consequences, such as a fine or an order to remove copyrighted content.
If you claimed the said content was your own, even unintentionally, you might be found guilty of plagiarism.


Plagiarism is when you take the content of someone else and claim it as your own. The most common type of plagiarism students hear about is the plagiarism of written ideas and/or phrases. It's possible to accidentally plagiarise by simply forgetting to cite the original source of an idea or phrase.
Plagiarism can have serious consequences, especially in the world of academia. It can get students expelled and see the careers of professors destroyed. Furthermore, there could be legal consequences as well.
It's not difficult in the age of image searches and Turnitin.com to be caught plagiarising or violating copyright. It can also be incredibly disheartening for content creators to see their hard work taken without permission or credit.

Legal Ways to Use The IP of Others

So, what's an aspiring slide-show creator or aesthetic post-maker to do? Fortunately, the internet offers free material for people to use. Furthermore, there are ways to use the IP of others without violating copyright law.
  • Creative Commons is a public copyright license that a creator uses when they want to give others the right to use their work. Many Wikipedia images, for example, fall under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons provides six levels of licensing that you can read about here!
  • Fair Use is an exception to copyright law that allows the use of copyrighted material without permission for limited purposes, such as educational or news-reporting. It can be very difficult to determine what is and isn't Fair Use, so don't use it as a cure-all!

Open sourcing vs. Open access

  • Open sourcing, as briefly discussed in Big Idea 1, allows for work to be freely shared, distributed, and modified. Open sourcing is usually mentioned in the context of software.
  • Open access, on the other hand, refers to research available to the general public that's free of many restrictions. For example, some academic journals are open-access or have open-access sections. Works that are under the umbrella of open access are often free of copyright use restrictions, but it's important to verify that this is the case with each work.

Websites like Unsplash and Pixabay offer free and beautiful stock images, many of which were used to help write these guides! Image source: Rubén García on Unsplash.

Systems like Creative Commons, Open sourcing, and Open access allow a great deal of intellectual work to be shared and used widely, thereby lowering intellectual barriers.

Other Legal and Ethical Concerns

There are many other legal and ethical concerns besides those related to copyright and IP. This is because fundamentally, computing innovations have the potential to do harm to people or groups of people.
Here are just a few further examples:
  • Streaming software allows you to watch your favorite movies and TV shows anytime, anywhere. Illegal streaming software, on the other hand, can violate copyright law and deprive creators of much-needed revenue. This software can also spread viruses and bugs. (For more about viruses, check out 5.6 Safe Computing!)
  • Biased algorithms can misrepresent or exclude people, as seen in 5.3 Computing Bias.
  • Some computing innovations use data that comes from the continuous monitoring of user activities. An example would be a step-tracker or screen-time tracker on your phone, which only works because it's constantly recording what you do. This process raises concerns about privacy and personal data use. (For more, check out 5.6 Safe Computing.)
  • The digital divide itself also raises ethical concerns, for reasons covered in 5.2 Digital Divide.
Today, computing innovations play a massive role in society and politics. Legal and ethical concerns also arise because this is not always for the better. For example…
  • The internet can be used to spread misinformation that could be harmful to people's health and well-being.
  • Algorithms designed to keep people scrolling on social media websites can create echo chambers, contributing to political polarization.
  • Recently, there's also been debate about the role that internet platforms should play in free speech. How far does and should the principle of free speech go on Social Media platforms?
    • For more information about the First Amendment right to freedom of expression, go here: The 1st Amendment Note that the First Amendment does not apply to private businesses, which most Social Media platforms are.
Can you think of any other examples besides the ones mentioned here?

In Summary…

Computing innovations are wonderful things. They’ve fundamentally transformed the way we live and allow us to do some pretty amazing things! However, it's important to remember that behind every computer screen, computing innovation and computing system effect is a person (or a group of people). The power of computing innovations can seriously hurt people if we forget that.
Furthermore, the digital age is still very new. We'll run into further legal and ethical issues the more and more we navigate it. It's up to make sure we're doing our best to be ethical computing innovation users and developers (or future developers.)
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