7 Professional Responsibilities, Ethics, & Copyright

Introduction

While students are naturally excited to embark on a program of study toward becoming an aerospace engineer, professional and ethical responsibilities go along with being part of the profession. There is a myriad of regulations and policies that apply to the design and operation of flight vehicles. However, there are also established ethical practices and codes of conduct in regard to how engineers perform their duties.

While engineers will sometimes face ethical concerns and may have to make tough decisions, they must subscribe to strong ethical principles and perform their work duties with integrity, honesty, and professionalism.

Besides “gaining technical qualifications and maintaining their technical competency,” engineers must always abide by the ethical principles that govern their profession. In this regard, engineers must carry out all of their technical duties with honesty and integrity, be considerate and respectful of professional colleagues, both within and outside of their organization, be concerned for the safety and welfare of the public, and be aware of any legal responsibilities and liabilities. Today, engineers must also understand much more about the potential impact of their decisions on the environment. Furthermore, they must also comply with a myriad of local, state, and national laws and/or regulations, which may also depend on the locality, state, or country in which they practice engineering.

Other issues engineers must be concerned about regarding their work activities and products include copyright and what is or is not allowed under copyright law, both U.S. and international. Today, they must also be aware of the laws that involve the use of software and all sorts of digital media so as to fully comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Objectives of this Lesson

  • Appreciate the established ethical practices and codes of conduct that apply to how engineers perform their duties.
  • Become familiar with the American Institute of Aeronautics (AIAA) Code of Ethics, which all professional aerospace engineers subscribe to in the U.S.
  • Appreciate copyright issues pertaining to engineering work products and what can or cannot be done under copyright law.
  • Understand the implications of the DMCA regarding copyright matters that may affect an engineer’s actions, including the downloading or uploading of different types of digital media, including reports, technical papers, and software.

Aerospace Code of Ethics

Like all professional fields, newcomers must be aware of a code of aerospace engineering ethics. The aerospace profession has established such codes of ethics over many decades and “establish the aerospace engineer’s standing concerning the public at large, their clients and employers, and the profession as a whole.”

The general principles laid down by the codes of ethics are broadly similar across the world’s engineering societies and those established by other professional authorities. Furthermore, in many countries, such codes have also been incorporated into regulatory laws and are legally enforceable, i.e., ethical violations carry legal consequences that may result in civil and/or criminal penalties. Therefore, all engineers must be aware of their respective codes of practice, regardless of where they are in the world, and properly adhere to them in all of their engineering tasks and duties.

The following is a top-level list of Guidelines to Practice in the U.S. under the American Institute of Aeronautics (AIAA) Code of Ethics. The complete statement is available on the AIAA’s website at: https://www.aiaa.org/CodeOfEthics/.

Guidelines to Practice under the AIAA Code of Ethics

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their duties.
  2. Promote the lawful and ethical interests of AIAA and the aerospace profession.
  3. Reject bribery, fraud, and corruption in all their forms.
  4. Properly credit the contributions of others, accept and offer honest and constructive criticism of technical work, and acknowledge and correct errors.
  5. Avoid harming others, their property, their reputations or their employment through false or malicious statements or through unlawful or otherwise wrongful acts.
  6. Issue statements or present information in an objective and truthful manner, based on available data.
  7. Avoid real and perceived conflicts of interest, and act as honest and fair agents in all professional interactions.
  8. Undertake only those technical tasks for which  are qualified by training or experience, or for which we can reasonably become qualified with proper preparation, education, and training.
  9. Maintain and improve our technical and professional competencies throughout our careers and provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under our supervision.
  10. Treat fairly and respectfully all colleagues and co-workers, recognizing their unique contributions and capabilities.

Facing Ethical Issues

Engineers will likely face some form of ethical issues during their careers. Some of these issues may be technical, but others may be non-technical and have broader considerations involving administrative and/or legal implications. One ethical dilemma an engineer can face is his/her duty to report a possible risk to others by a client or an employer who “fails to follow proper engineering practices, advice, or judgment.” It should be remembered that an engineer has a higher duty to society as a whole, not to any other individual, employer, or organization.

Remember also that an engineer may be disciplined and/or an employer sanctioned in the event of the loss of life or well-being that can be traced to a failure to follow sound engineering practices or otherwise engaging in any practice that can be connected to ethical misconduct. In addition, if the ethical principles are part of regulatory law, which is the case in many professions, not just engineering, civil or criminal penalties may be imposed for severe misconduct cases.

Examples of Ethical Concerns

Examples of ethical concerns for an engineer may include:

  • Failure to separate professional and personal relationships with clients, consultants, contractors, or others.
  • Possible forms of conflict of interest, i.e., a clash between self-serving interests and professional duties or responsibilities.
  • Acts of bribery and/or the receipt of kickbacks.
  • Improper treatment of confidential or proprietary information.
  • Failure to ensure proper legal compliance by clients, contractors, and others.
  • Conspiracy to defraud by impairing, obstructing, defeating, or interfering with lawful requirements.
  • Conflicting outside employment, including activities such as “moonlighting.”
  • Issues that may involve “quid-pro-quo,” i.e., gaining something for something.
  • Intimidation by employers, co-workers, or by other individuals, such as in an attempt to discredit or punish those who dissent with their actions, opinions, or judgment.

Adherence to acceptable ethical practices and fulfilling all ethical responsibilities will avoid most of these preceding concerns.

Resolution of Ethical Concerns

In some cases, an engineer may seek advice from a colleague or manager to help resolve an ethical dilemma. Usually, a resolution of the matter is forthcoming after discussion, but there may be exceptions. For example, sometimes there may not be a clear resolution to an ethical issue, but there may still be some approaches or solutions, some of which may be better than others.

Responsibilities to employers and confidentiality considerations that otherwise would have prevented an engineer from acting ethically and in the public interest, are considered extremely seriously by professional engineering societies. They also may have legal implications through the courts and certification authorities like the FAA or EASA. Such issues can have severe repercussions for employers and employees alike, and in the case of a breach of Federal Aviation Regulations, for example, then legal consequences are always likely.

Whistleblowing is usually a last resort, but it is not an unusual action based on legal case history for an employee to take action against an organization that exhibits poor judgment, questionable conduct, unsafe processes, or even some form of illegal activity. In the U.S., under federal and state laws, employees who have reported illegal conduct, unlawful intimidation, safety hazards, and other similar problems are protected under the law against any retaliation. Nevertheless, whistleblowing should never be considered the first or even an early action.

Consequences of Ethical Misconduct

The engineering societies all have ethics review boards. For serious ethics violations, these boards may issue sanctions that include suspension or expulsion from the society, in some cases with the simultaneous revocation of all professional qualifications or licenses. In cases of loss of life or well-being, the courts have usually sided with those who have spoken up against an employer or other organization for not following acceptable or otherwise sound engineering practices. Therefore, it is clear that full compliance with ethical and other professional standards is always the best policy.

The recently reported scandals at Volkswagen over a vehicle emissions control device and at Boeing Commercial Aircraft over the circumstances that led to two fatal crashes of the 737-MAX with the loss of 346 lives, are now case studies of gross ethical misconduct. The consequences have resulted in considerable harm to the organizations, their employees, and the public at large. In both cases, an emphasis on corporate profits over flight safety was at the root of the ethical misconduct. Of course, bad outcomes will always transpire in any organizational culture that emphasizes profits over public safety, especially if they also go so far as to discredit, threaten, or otherwise punish those employees who dissent with their actions. However, an engineer’s ethical responsibilities certainly do not preclude the consideration of factors such as costs and schedule. The good news is that the attention brought to such scandals, especially the massive professional and legal fallout for Boeing, means that similar issues are less likely to occur in the future.

Even if absolved from criminal wrongdoing, one lesson to learn here is the lingering effects of lawsuits and other legal actions resulting from the loss of life, which can harm an organization’s long-term credibility, competitiveness, and financial stability. While calls for change usually always emerge after engineering decisions that become tragic and may cause loss of life, it has been argued by some that each new generation of engineers must seemingly relearn the same lessons. Such a process will require corporations, engineering societies, and teachers to be much more proactive in educating and supporting the ethical behavior of students as well as up-and-coming new engineers.

Ethics for Students

Students must maintain a constant commitment to adhere to academic ethics. Academic institutions such as colleges and universities strive to cultivate a healthy and ethically responsible environment for learning and training. Therefore, students must align with and follow their principles and policies to preserve the institution’s integrity. At the core of student ethical conduct is academic integrity, and it is critical that all students fully participate in maintaining and fostering academic integrity in all that they do.

Academic integrity and ethical conduct are essential in all assignments not just those for credit, including homework, exams, laboratory reports, projects, presentations, etc. Students must be truthful in conveying their answers to any assignment as being representative of their own work without cheating or misrepresentation. In the case of group activities, then the entire group is held to this standard. Students who do not subscribe to following the standards of academic integrity can expect consequences such as sanctions, such as being given a failing grade on the assignment for a minor infraction to expulsion from the institution for severe or repeated infractions.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is one type of unethical conduct and a violation of academic integrity. Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s writings or other work as one’s own work or using content or work products without citing or crediting the source. An example of plagiarism would be copying and pasting sentences, paragraphs, or other content, then submitting it as one’s work. Closely rewording (paraphrasing) content found from other sources, such as changing or adding a few words here or there, especially without citation, is also a form of plagiarism.

Self-plagiarism is also unethical and a violation of academic integrity. One example of self-plagiarism is using the same content (e.g., a previously graded homework or essay) to satisfy the requirements for another course or class. This type of academic integrity infraction would also apply to a repeat of the same class, even if taught by another instructor. Ethically, students must use their submitted work only once, unless an instructor has given explicit permission to the contrary.

Avoiding Cheating

Cheating is always an unethical practice, not just in an academic setting. Cheating, or even the perception of cheating, can be avoided by responsibly and ethically completing one’s assignments, including homework and exams. A student should always submit only their own work and never copy work from another student or misrepresent another student’s work as their own. In most cases, assignments will be completed individually unless a group activity has been assigned. Examples of cheating would be copying homework answers from another student or using unauthorized resources during an exam. Such unauthorized resources may include unapproved electronic devices such as cell phones, solution manuals, tutoring services, texting, or anything else the instructor prohibits explicitly in the course policies.

Some other examples of cheating may include:

  • Facilitating or aiding and abetting the cheating efforts of other students.
  • Doing an assignment for another student, such as writing, editing, or rewriting the submission, in whole or in part.
  • Copying or attempting to copy answers from another student during an exam.
  • Having in their possession, without permission from the instructor, any exams or other materials belonging to faculty, staff, or another student.
  • Giving another student answers to previous exam questions or other assignments unless the course instructor or other faculty have expressly authorized the release of the answers.
Need some more help with understanding ethical principles? Here is a short video lesson on ethics for engineers and students by Dr. Leishman.

 Copyright Issues

All engineers must be familiar with copyright issues and copyright law and the practical implications of the law on their day-to-day practices, work products, and other activities. Copyright matters are covered as part of U.S. and international law. In the U.S., the copyright law is published by the Copyright Office: https://www.copyright.gov/title17/. Copyright protects the creators of original work, e.g., reports, books, photographs, videos, music, etc. Remember that copyright law also applies to all forms of digital media, including software.

What Does Copyright Mean?

Copyright protection means that if someone creates an original work product, they own it. An original work means any authorship in a tangible medium of expression. Although there are exceptions, this rule generally always holds. Exceptions may include “works made for hire,” which means that if a work product is created for someone else who paid for it, such as an employer or some organization (e.g., as a consultant), then the employer or another party may be able to claim copyright ownership of your work. However, in this latter regard, shared authorship is usually considered to be standard practice.

Copyright also protects both published and unpublished works, i.e., a given work on tangible media does not need to be formally published to be covered by copyright law. Copyright also applies to most, if not all, college and university course materials such as a professor’s course packets, homework problems and solutions, exam questions, etc. It is a fallacy that the copyright symbol \copyright needs to be used and attached to copyright any work, and copyright is always implied on any authored materials that exist on any form of tangible media, physical or electronic.

Copyright law cannot protect intangibles, e.g., ideas. Just because someone has a good idea does not mean that it is immediately protected under copyright law. Nevertheless, if someone writes down or records the idea on any tangible media, including electronic formats, their idea will be immediately protected under copyright law.

Avoiding Copyright Infringement

Copyright rules and laws apply from the date of creation plus 70 years after the author’s death, i.e., copyright is enforceable for the author’s entire lifetime plus 70 years beyond that. When the copyright expires, then the work becomes in the public domain, which means that the work is available to the public at large without any concerns over who holds the rights to it, and so anyone can freely use the work in whatever form they want. However, if known, proper attribution is still an ethical responsibility, even though it may not be legally required.

Some materials may already be in the public domain, but this is rare. For example, materials found on Wikipedia or Wikimedia and the like are generally not in the public domain even though they are often declared by the copyright holder as open-source (e.g., under a Creative Commons license). Such works are not subject to any copyright restrictions other than attribution to the creator of the work.

U.S. Government publications are generally in the public domain, and all of their work products are not subject to copyright restrictions, at least in the U.S. Work done under U.S. Government contract (e.g., research at a university), generally belongs to the researcher and/or the students and/or the university. For example, the copyright of a thesis or dissertation, including the results and the data therein, will belong to the student and not to the sponsor of the work (if any).

Nevertheless, using work products from other sources should always be done with permission. A work’s creator and copyright owner always has the right to dictate precisely how their work can be used. Usually, most authors are pleased that their work is helpful to others. Indeed, the copyright owner of a tangible medium such as a photograph or graphic will allow almost anyone to use their work with permission and attribution. Gaining permission may require a request using a letter or an email, but the request and the permissions (if obtained) should always be in writing. Work published under a Creative Commons license should always be given the appropriate attribution even though explicit permission to use the work need not be obtained.

What is known as “fair use” is another exception to the restrictions created by copyright law. Fair use applies mainly for academic, educational, or instructional purposes or for some other “not-for-profit” purposes, i.e., its use leads to no financial profit for the user of the work. Fair use (with attribution) extends to “brief excerpts” of the work, which is usually considered less than 10% of any given document, one figure, one photograph, etc., from one single source. Fair use, however, does not extend to entire documents.

In general, a question that is a good test of fair use is: “Does my use of someone else’s work decrease the value of the original work to the copyright holder?” If not, then it is fine to use the work under the terms of fair use. However, asking for the copyright holder’s permission and giving attribution is always a good idea; a simple acknowledgment may be all that is needed in most cases.

Only some copyright holders expect a royalty fee or other payment for the educational use of their work, but this should not be pre-assumed. Exceptions may include specific organizations or copyright clearing centers, which will expect copyright fees to be paid before any published work can be used in another work.

Penalties for Copyright Infringement

“Copyright infringement is the act of exercising, without permission or legal authority, one or more of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under section 106 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the U.S. Code). These rights include the right to reproduce or distribute a copyrighted work. In the file-sharing context, downloading or uploading substantial parts of a copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement.”

Therefore, copyright infringement means using someone’s work without their permission or other means that do not align with the copyright declaration. Copyright infringement is an unlawful act that may have potential legal and criminal consequences, including fines or other penalties. It is illogical for an engineer, employer, student, etc., to risk the imposition of any sanctions or other penalties for improper use of content and potential copyright violations. Therefore, permissions should always be sought and explicitly given by the copyright holder.

Penalties for copyright infringement are severe and can include civil and criminal penalties. Those liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay actual or statutory damages per each work that was infringed. In addition, for any willful infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can also assess costs and attorneys’ fees. For more information, see the U.S. Copyright Office’s website at www.copyright.gov, especially their FAQ’s at www.copyright.gov/help/faq.

Remember that students are not exempt from the law, and copyright infringements will carry the same legal force as anyone else. Students who violate any copyright law may also be charged with violations of their college or university honor code, e.g., for fraud, which may result in sanctions such as probation or expulsion.

What is the DMCA?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA, is a 1998 addendum to U.S. copyright law. This law applies to copyrighted material in digital form that is uploaded to the internet. The DMCA becomes applicable if a person:

  • Downloads copyrighted content from the internet and publishes it elsewhere without the copyright owner’s permission,
  • Uploads copyrighted content to a website or other online platform without the copyright owner’s permission.
  • Digitally shares any copyrighted work without the copyright owner’s permission.
  • Shares copyrighted software tools or other copyrighted software, e.g., the person-to-person (or “P2P”) sharing of software.

Exceptions to downloading digital content may include fair use, which is considered acceptable in an academic setting but not always for other purposes. For any infringements of copyright law under DMCA, the copyright owner may ask that the online copyright infraction be suitably rectified. Remember that, like other parts of U.S. copyright law, legal and criminal penalties are defined under DMCA for copyright violations.

In the event of a DMCA Takedown Notice being filed by a copyright holder for a potential copyright violation on the internet or other online platform, then the online internet service provider is required by law to take specific actions. To this end, the law requires that the uploader is informed of the concern raised by the copyright holder and that the service provider immediately removes any infringed work. If there is no resolution, then legal and other actions may ensue, e.g., the uploader potentially faces a lawsuit from the copyright holder. In addition, legal resolution of any copyright infraction may result in civil and criminal penalties for the violator.

Ethical Scenarios to Consider

Example Question #1

Which of the following may be illegal and/or unethical actions?

    1. Lying to your employer.
    2. Cheating on an examination.
    3. Your organization is secretly monitoring your emails.
    4. Falsifying data for an engineering report.
    5. Copying a solutions manual for a textbook and putting it online.

1. There is no law against lying to one’s employer, but it would undoubtedly be considered unethical. The most significant component of any working relationship is trust. An employer must trust that their employees will act with integrity and represent their business in the best possible way.
2. Cheating on an exam is unethical, but it is not illegal. Nevertheless, if you are a student, then cheating on an exam will violate your student honor code, and if you are caught, then it could result in severe sanctions such as suspension or expulsion from your college or university.
3. If your organization secretly monitors your emails to others, even internally, this is undoubtedly an ethical concern; no reputable employer would do such a thing. Furthermore, employers who are found to be secretly monitoring the actions of an employee could expect some pushback or other repercussions from a union or collective representation of their employees.
4. Falsifying data for an engineering report is unethical and would be considered an egregious act of misconduct by the professional community. It could also be criminal, especially if harm or loss of life occurs as a consequence.
5. Copying a solutions manual and putting it online would be a violation of U.S. copyright law and also subject to the DMCA’s terms. In this case, the copyright holder may issue a DMCA Takedown Notice, and there could also be lawsuits as well as civil and criminal penalties for the violator.

Example Question #2

A student uploads homework questions and their solutions to a third-party website without the permission of the course instructor who prepared them. This action would be considered:

  1. Both ethical and legal.
  2. Unethical but still legal.
  3. Both unethical and illegal.
  4. Legal but a violation of the student honor code.

The copyright of any homework solutions would generally belong to whoever created them, e.g., a professor, course instructor, or teaching assistant. However, an argument could be made that they were “work for hire,” so the copyright also belongs to the college or university. In either case, unless permission is obtained that explicitly allows a student to upload the solutions to a third-party website, it would be considered a copyright violation and an illegal action under the law (DMCA). It would also be unethical because even if there is attribution to the authorship of the homework solutions, explicit permission would still need to be obtained from the author and/or the college or university to upload them. Therefore, in this case, the action by the student would be both unethical and illegal. This infraction could also result in violations of a college or university student honor code for fraud, which is likely to result in sanctions.

Summary & Closure

The field of aerospace engineering has ethical and legal responsibilities that all engineers must subscribe to and abide by. The profession has established these ethical principles over many decades. They establish an aerospace engineer’s standing in respect to their clients and employers, the profession as a whole, and the public at large. In addition, ethical policies may be part of regulatory law in some countries or jurisdictions so that ethical violations could result in civil or criminal penalties.

Copyright laws cover most engineering work products, and the ownership of the work belongs to whoever created it. However, in some cases, if the work is done for someone else (e.g., an employer), then it may be a “work for hire,” and the copyright of the work may belong to an employer. The bottom line is that people cannot do whatever they want with someone else’s work, and everyone should follow the law and seek permission to use the work products created by others. Copyright also applies to most online digital material, i.e., anything found on and/or used from the internet. Exceptions include work that is declared in the “public domain,'” which includes most work products of the U.S. government and those declared under a Creative Commons license.

Generally, permission to use the work should be obtained from the owner of the work, or you should abide by “fair use” principles. Fair use of content is entirely appropriate in an academic setting, such as for instructional or other educational use, but rarely for other uses. In many cases, there could be legal consequences, such as a lawsuit for copyright infractions, and this is never a good position to be in. As a student, it is important to understand and follow copyright laws, as they apply to everyone. Properly attributing works shows respect for the creators and demonstrates ethical and legal responsibility.

5-Question Self-Assessment Quickquiz

For Further Thought & Discussion

  • Discuss the ethical and legal issues of person-to-person (P2P) sharing of a licensed software product that is downloaded from the internet.
  • An engineer conducts a design using pirated software obtained from the internet. The engineer later learns that the software gives inaccurate results, but a report has already been published that contains results from the software. What should the engineer do?
  • Occasionally, a conflict of interest may occur accidentally in the course of engineering work. Discuss the best course of action to take in the event of a potential conflict of interest situation.
  • To what extent is an engineer personally responsible for the consequences of their actions?
  • Engineers are often confronted with economic pressures that run counter to good and responsible engineering practice. Discuss this issue from an ethical perspective.
  • Discuss a scenario when an engineer’s moral principles may be in conflict with their ethical principles.
  • Engineers sometimes may have to make decisions that involve trade-offs between cost and safety. But when embedded in an organizational culture that emphasizes profits over safety and punishes those who dissent, bad things often happen. Discuss this issue.

Other Useful Online Resources

To dive further into how to subscribe to ethical conduct in the field of engineering then visit the following web sites: