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On July 17, ACM, the Association of Computing Machinery, released an update of its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to address the significant advances in computing technology and the degree that these technologies are integrated into our daily lives since the previous version was adopted in 1992. We are Catherine Flick and Michael Kirkpatrick, and we helped guide the process to ensure that the updated ACM Code of Ethics captures the conscience of the profession and reflects the experiences, values and aspirations of computing professionals around the world. Ask us anything about how we ran the Code update effort, specific aspects of the Code, how to interpret the Code, or applying it in your daily lives!

Read the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct:

Read the “Using the Code” case studies that apply the principles and guidelines of the ACM Code of Ethics to real world situations:

Proof: Catherine Flick: Michael Kirkpatrick:

Edit: Our allotted hour is up, however we'll still answer questions, but probably not as quickly as we have been. Please keep them coming, though, they've been great! Thanks everyone who asked something.


Hi! I wonder if you could shed some light on the reasoning behind some striking changes from the 1992 to the 2018 Code of Ethics in the realm of intellectual property. [Abridged excerpts below, with bold added by me.]

The 2018 code waters down the language on this subject: it is limited to stating that computing professionals should respect legal protections such as copyright. The 1992 version went much further, emphasizing (with redundant language!) that it is unprofessional or unethical to copy software even when it is not legally protected, unless authorization is given. The same shift is seen in giving credit to creators: 2018 says to “credit the creators,” while 1992 emphasized to do so even in cases without legal protections in place. In short, the sentiment seems to have shifted from “gain permission first to use another’s work, even if the work is not legally protected” [1992], to “obey the laws and always cite the creator” [2018].

In fact, the 2018 code goes further to say “custom and the law recognize that some exceptions to a creator’s control of a work are necessary for the public good. Computing professionals should not unduly oppose reasonable uses of their intellectual works.” I recognize the nuance (“reasonable”), but the shift in language is striking in that it seems to put pressure on creators, not on those who would copy their creations.

I’m curious about the committee’s motivations for making these changes that seemingly reverse the judgement of unauthorized copying of legally-unprotected software for the public good. Is it to align better with laws and customs? Is it to respond to a modern ethical crisis in the computing field? Is it a socialistic desire to serve the common good even at the expense of the individual?

Incidentally, this is a really difficult ethical grey area that pervades society outside computing as well. An interesting case study to discuss is the unauthorized use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in medical research (obviously, for the public good!) The existence of these sorts of grey areas make me wonder about the causes and effects of changes like these in our professional code of ethics.

For instance, I wonder whether this shift in ethical perspective might have unintended side effects. Say, afraid of losing the value of their hard-earned work, creators may feel more pressure to establish legal protections, causing further “siloing” of works for the public good. Consider as an extreme example the pharmaceutical industry, where the easy ability to copy inventions has prompted a strict legal system of limited copyright, where creators charge prohibitive prices for life-saving treatments and thereby limit the contribution to the public good.

I appreciate your thoughts!

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Original Poster2 points · 1 month ago

Another issue relevant to this that requires thoughtful consideration is the proper use of DRM. Yes, creators have rights to protect their works and their labor. At the same time, there have been cases where DRM has been used (in my opinion) to restrict individuals from exercising full control over their purchased works. For instance, DRM has been used to prevent format shifting of media that impinges on legitimate uses, such as making backup copies (because CDs and DVDs fail) or archiving records in libraries. DRM has also been used to lock users out from repairing or upgrading devices that they own (such as printers, tractors, etc.). These uses should be considered carefully within the broader context of society.


Interesting. As a counter-point (that I'm sure media companies would offer), I would imagine the epidemic of people illegally sharing media is much larger (in terms of an economic disruption) than the epidemic of rightful owners losing access to their belongings. The creators justify using DRM technology because of the failure of legal methods to keep pace with widespread violations—that is, since governments are largely unable to enforce the laws, creators turn to technological solutions.

I can think of an example with the opposite effect—a case where technology has been used to replace legal systems in order to benefit the public good: namely, the enforcement of smart contracts using blockchain. Of course, things get interesting when technology fails in its purpose to enforce legal principles, or even backfires, often due to flaws in the technology. (See, for example, the leaking of the AACS encryption key in DRM or the DAO hack) in cryptocurrency.) The effect is to flip the balance of benefiting private vs. public good… and also make one question the capability of technology to replace legal contracts. Cue the need for the Code of Ethics' list of Professional Responsibilities… :)

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Original Poster1 point · 1 month ago

Yes, the issue of DRM is complex and requires a balancing of interests. That's why Principle 1.5 simultaneously mentions respecting copyright and opposing unreasonable restrictions. And similar to the point that Catherine made, there are other techniques for protecting intellectual property that can be used as well: combining watermarking with digital forensics and law enforcement. DRM is certainly an appropriate technique in some circumstances; but the choice should be made after reflection and considering alternatives and other stakeholders.

This discussion echoes a long-running debate in the field of ethics: utilitarianism (emphasizing the maximum good outcomes) vs. deontology (respecting rights and autonomy). Making the argument just about the economic disruption while ignoring property rights is favoring one ethical perspective that is universal.


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