Ethics and Intellectual Property

Some of the most common ethical decisions youth face online revolve around intellectual property, but teaching kids to respect intellectual property can be particularly challenging because they may not see this as an ethical issue.

The good news is that younger children do tend to view it as an ethical question: in a recent MTV survey, 68 percent of teens said they pay for music out of respect to the artist, even though they believe music should be free [1], and more than two-thirds of Canadian students in grades 4 to 6 think that it’s wrong to download movies, TV shows or music illegally.

Unfortunately, as youth enter high school their attitude on this issue changes dramatically, with only a third of Grade 10 students believing that it’s wrong [2]. (In practice, however, they still overwhelmingly get their online media from legitimate sources such as YouTube and iTunes.) [3]

There are four main reasons for this:

  • The easy availability of unauthorized content online gives us less time to think about the ethics or possible consequences of accessing it;
  • Digital media can make it easier not to feel empathy for the people affected by our actions;
  • Social codes of youth culture, where streaming, sharing and downloading are the norm [4], can lead to kids thinking this isn’t a big deal; and
  • There is a lot of confusion, among both youth and adults, of just what is legal and ethical when accessing online content [5].

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that while some activities are clearly unethical (like illegally downloading movies), many common activities – such as writing fan fiction or using copyrighted music in a personal video – are less clear. This may explain why Canadian students say they want to learn “what is legal and illegal to do online” more than any other topic related to computers and the Internet [6].

To add to the challenge, most copyright law is too complicated for kids (and adults) and is still evolving in response to new technologies.

Respecting Intellectual Property Online

Given all these challenges, a much simpler and more manageable approach is to promote respect for the creators and copyright holders of online content. In other words, before we watch, listen to or play online media, we need to think about whether we’re doing this in a way that shows respect for the people who made it and own it.

To do this, we need to apply empathy. The challenge, however, is that kids may not feel empathetic towards media creators such as musicians or filmmakers – especially if they’re successful – and even less towards companies that own the copyright to what they’ve created.

It’s important to remind kids that to survive, artists, creators, and makers need to make money. Given all the stuff that’s freely available online, if something isn’t free, it’s because the person who made it expects to get paid. The good news is that Canadian youth overwhelmingly turn to legitimate sources of online media [7], and they’re easy to find using sources like the Where to Watch – Canada site for movies, or Music Canada site for music, that provide links to legitimate online content available in Canada.

Kids may think that cheating a media company is not the same as cheating a person [8], so we also need to explain that copyright is an important part of how artists and others who work in the creative community earn a living and is what allows them to keep making creative works. Remind kids that when an artist creates a work, they own it and they deserve to control what happens to it. We can also help kids understand that the sites that profit illegally from the creative works of others not only hurt the creators, but often pose a risk to the privacy and security of the individuals who use them.

The illegality of unauthorized downloading, streaming and distribution doesn’t seem to be stopping youth, or consumers in general. Instead of focusing on “the law,” family rules can encourage kids to think ethically about using online content. Clearly communicating your expectations about respecting people who make or own online content reinforces that this is part of your family values. MediaSmarts’ research found that students who had a rule in the home about what was appropriate to download were significantly less likely to download movies, music or other content illegally. However, the likelihood of this rule being in a student’s home is much lower among older students – starting at a high of 50 percent in Grade 4 and declining to roughly 15 percent in Grade 11 – which may account for older students’ feeling that illegal downloading is not an ethical issue [9].

Unlike younger children, who are motivated heavily by a fear of punishment and a desire for rewards, teens are more motivated by a desire to fit in. This makes them look to group values to guide their morality, and if their family is not providing any guidance they’ll be influenced chiefly by peers and popular media.

How much do young people need to know about intellectual property? A good start is to know where and when you can use media legally and for free. Our tip sheet on Getting the Goods Ethically explains how this can be done through a growing number of legitimate sites and services, the public domain, Creative Commons and Fair Dealing exemptions.

Looking at it from an ethical standpoint, it comes down to a simple concept: before watching, listening or playing online media, we need to think about whether we’re doing this is in a way that shows respect for the people who made it and own it. While copyright law may be complicated, we can teach young people the importance of treating content creators with respect in terms they can understand:

  1. Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean you can take it and use it; and
  2. For things you are allowed to use, always give credit to the person or company who owns the copyright.


[1] Music to the M Power. MTV, 2013.
[2] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Experts or Amateurs? Gauging Young Canadians’ Digital Literacy Skills. MediaSmarts, 2014. <>
[3] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. MediaSmarts, 2014. <>
[4] Jacqui Cheng. Students: Shoplifting CDs worse than downloading music via P2P. Ars Technica, April 13, 2011. <>
[5] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Experts or Amateurs? Gauging Young Canadians’ Digital Literacy Skills. MediaSmarts, 2014. <>
[6] Ibid.
[7] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III. MediaSmarts, 2014.
[8] Amelia Hill. Internet users unaware of illegal downloading. The Guardian, April 22, 2013. <>
[9] Cheng, 2011.

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More