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MPAA, Junior Achievement School Program on Slippery Slope

19 Oct, 2003 By: Kurt Indvik

Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Junior Achievement organization announced a new program called “What's the Diff?,” designed to teach kids “responsible digital citizenship.”

For reasons I cannot fully articulate, this leaves me with an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach. Primarily, because it strikes me that this effort, as legitimate as it appears on its face, is in many ways an effort by one industry to penetrate the hearts and minds of a generation of middle-school kids on an issue of vital financial importance to that industry.

OK, before you fire back an angry e-mail to me, please understand that I am not a proponent of file trading of copyrighted material. I understand that it is illegal, and we all have a responsibility to act accordingly in front of our PCs in the privacy of our own homes and offices. I understand that there may reasonably be a place for a discussion of intellectual property rights in our schools' curriculum in some form or fashion.

But at least in the middle-school curriculum that I reviewed on Junior Achievement's Web site, I found no similar “sponsored” tracks for other single-industry issues as this issue is for the entertainment industry. Indeed, the JA's programs on personal finance, math in business, economics in action and others don't appear to be attempting to convince kids of anything other than the value of staying in school (there's even a track called the “economics of staying in school”). I don't see the cable industry sponsoring a track on the impropriety of illegally taping cable or satellite programs to which one has not subscribed. I don't see the computer industry sponsoring a track focusing on the unlawful copying of computer programs (maybe they'll be covering this in the MPAA program, but it wasn't mentioned in the press release).

Now, I recognize the problem that exists. A recent Gallup Poll found that 83 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 felt that downloading free music was morally acceptable. The Internet culture has bred the feeling that anything on the Web is free to do with what you want if you can get it, and that is wrong. But so is taking two newspapers out of the dispensing machine when you only paid for one — and I don't recall seeing the newspaper industry trying to integrate that message into America's education program. Parents, I think, must be the source for this sort of teaching. The Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) efforts to prosecute file swappers and the online and TV public service announcements about the illegality of downloading are all legitimate exercises of “educating” a public about these improper practices.

The message of responsible digital citizenship is important to those in the entertainment industry from a financial standpoint — I agree. But is it of such national priority that we use a portion of the already precious educational time and attention in our schools (even in ancillary programs such as Junior Achievement) to focus on it at such a significant level? It is an issue of ethics, and I agree that kids need to be able to understand the file trading of copyrighted materials they have not paid for individually is stealing. I just wonder if our entertainment culture is not penetrating too deeply into areas of our society once governed by a more broadly based set of intellectual standards.

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