The students at Waples Mill Elementary School in Oakton learn that it's wrong to steal someone else's work. They are taught to respect their classmates' opinions. And teachers stress that group projects are the responsibility of the whole group -- not an excuse to let someone else pick up the slack.
At the Fairfax County school, lessons in character and ethics are as valued as classes in arithmetic and spelling. But even for the most well-behaved and upstanding kids, knowing right from wrong can get a bit confusing when the real world is replaced with a virtual one.
So last week Bob Kruger, a vice president with the Washington-based Business Software Alliance, a trade group promoting digital copyright protection, visited the school's fifth- and sixth-graders to teach them about "cyber ethics." Kruger usually speaks to information technology professionals and business owners, but he has decided that it makes sense to share his message with a younger audience, too.
"We're talking about protecting creativity," Kruger said. "Not only do they get it, but sometimes they get it better than the grown-ups do."
Friday morning, Kruger stood before a room of fidgety sixth-graders. "I'm Bob, and I fight pirates," he said, an introduction that prompted some cheers from the class. There were a few groans when Kruger explained that his pirates don't sail on ships, but the kids seemed to be hooked when they figured out that they'd be learning about computers and the Internet.
Kruger explained that even though music, photos, games or software found on the Internet might seem to be free and available, downloading them might be stealing. He told them that some art that has been around for a long time, such as the works of William Shakespeare, is free to be used because it's considered to be in the "public domain" -- but that other, more recent work still belongs to its creator.
Kruger appealed to these Internet-savvy kids not by worrying or lecturing them but by encouraging them to respect the work of the songwriter, programmer or singer.
Although the finer points of intellectual property and copyright law might have been lost on members of the young audience, they seemed to get the point.
"It's like when you work hard on an essay for school, someone shouldn't copy it," 11-year-old Danielle Cope said.
Steven Robbins, 12, said he's going to go home and tell a friend who burns CDs that he should make sure his copies are legal. You shouldn't make copies of music without permission, Robbins explained, because "if the person who made it found out, he would be mad."
Jennifer Niccolls, technology specialist at Waples Mill, explained that it's hard for some kids to understand that.
"I don't think they really understand that software and information on the Web isn't always free," Niccolls said.
"They need to hear that it's not only illegal, it's not fair to other people."
Waples Mill isn't the only school teaching cyber ethics. Diane Painter, the technology resource teacher at Deer Park Elementary School in Centreville, wrote a short play to teach her students about online behavior.
In Painter's parable, Cathy Consumer buys a popular computer adventure game from Rebecca Retailer and then makes illegal copies for all her friends. At first it seems like a generous gesture. But then Rebecca's sales plummet.
Pretty soon Rebecca Retailer can't pay her bills, and eventually she goes out of business. The same thing happens to Charlie the Creator, Peter the Programmer and Manuel the Manufacturer.
"It's exaggerated," Painter said. "But kids get the point. We get them to think about it."