6 Professional Responsibilities, Ethics, & Copyright


While students and others are naturally excited to embark on a program of study toward becoming an aerospace engineer, professional and ethical responsibilities accompany being part of the profession. Many regulations and policies apply to the design and operation of flight vehicles. However, there are also established ethical practices and codes of conduct regarding how professional aerospace engineers perform their duties. Besides “gaining technical qualifications and maintaining their technical competency,”[1] engineers must always abide by their profession’s ethical principles. In this regard, engineers must carry out all of their technical duties with the utmost honesty and integrity, be considerate and respectful of professional colleagues within and outside of their organization, be concerned for the safety and welfare of the public, and be aware of any legal responsibilities, liabilities, and potential consequences.

Today, all engineers must also understand much more about the potential impact of their design decisions on the environment. Furthermore, they must comply with many local, state, and national laws or regulations, which may also depend on the locality, state, or country where they practice engineering. As illustrated in the schematic below, engineers may have to make tough decisions, so they must attempt to perform their work duties with integrity, honesty, and professionalism.

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

Other issues engineers must be concerned about regarding their work activities and products include copyright and what is or is not allowed under both U.S. and international copyright law. Today, they must also be much better aware of the laws involving software and all sorts of digital media to fully comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The implications of failing to follow copyright law and the DMCA tend to be underestimated, especially by students and inexperienced engineers. The legal consequences can be severe, especially for unauthorized use or redistribution of copyrighted content, software piracy, and person-to-person sharing of software or other copyrighted digital media.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the differences between morals and ethics.
  • 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 in the U.S. subscribe to.
  • Be aware of copyright issues about 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 downloading or uploading different types of digital media, such as reports, technical papers, images, photographs, and software.

Differences Between Morals and Ethics

Morals and ethics are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings and must be carefully distinguished. On the one hand, morals refer to principles or values guiding individuals or society in determining right or wrong. The word “morals” is derived from the Latin word “moralitas,” which means “manner, character, or proper behavior.” It is the conduct or rules that a person or community may adhere to, believing these things to be obligatory. On the other hand, ethics refers to the systematic study of moral principles and how they should be applied in different contexts. The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek word “ethikos,” which means “about character.” Ethics explores what actions are morally right or wrong, what principles should guide acceptable human behavior, and how society can make ethical judgments.

In essence, morals are the principles or values individuals or communities hold and follow, while ethics is the study and reflection on those principles and how they should be applied. Morals are more subjective and personal, varying from person to person or culture to culture, while ethics aims to provide a more objective and reasoned approach to understanding morality. Individual beliefs, cultural norms, religion, or upbringing often influence morals. In contrast, the practice of ethics seeks to evaluate and analyze moral dilemmas and provide frameworks or theories to guide objective and rational decision-making.


Some differences between ethics and morals.

Therefore, ethics provide a framework for deciding right or wrong within a particular framework or context. Ethical principles are more objective and are based on sound reasoning; the underlying principle is to seek to establish a common and firm set of standards of acceptable conduct within a group or organization, i.e.,

    \begin{equation*} \mbox{Ethics} = \mbox{Morals} + \mbox{Reasoning} \end{equation*}

Therefore, to have an ethical perspective, one must have some overarching explanation. Remember that ethics is fundamentally a form of moral philosophy, and philosophy is about reasoning.

Aerospace Code of Ethics

Like all professional fields, newcomers must know the 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, and properly adhere to them in all 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 public’s safety, health, and welfare in performing their duties.
  2. Promote the lawful and ethical interests of the AIAA and the aerospace profession.
  3. Reject bribery, fraud, and corruption in all their forms.
  4. Appropriately 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 objectively and 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 they 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 all colleagues and co-workers fairly and respectfully, recognizing their unique contributions and capabilities.

Facing Ethical Issues

Engineers will likely face some form of ethical issue or ethical dilemma during their careers. Ethical dilemmas can be challenging to resolve because they involve making decisions in situations with no apparent correct answer; each available choice will likely have some negative consequences. The issue’s complexity is often heightened by uncertainty about the outcomes of those choices. Some of these issues may be technical, but others may be non-technical and have broader considerations involving administrative, personnel, and possibly legal implications.

Consider the following examples, which may also pose situations for further discussion in a group setting.

1. Failure to follow practices, advice, or judgment

One example of an ethical dilemma an engineer could face is their duty to report a possible risk to others by a client or an employer who “fails to follow proper engineering practices, advice, or judgment.” However, they may be reluctant to speak up or fear retribution, even if this is unlawful. The laws in the U.S. that prohibit acts of retaliation or reprisal by employers include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It should be remembered that all professional engineers have a higher duty to society as a whole, not to any other individual, employer, or organization. A professional engineer may be disciplined and an employer sanctioned if the loss of life or well-being can be traced to a failure to follow sound engineering practices or otherwise engaging in any practice 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 on all parties for severe misconduct cases. How might one ethically navigate this issue?

2. Honest and constructive criticism of technical work

Another example of a possible ethical dilemma is when an engineer is ethically obligated to “offer honest and constructive criticism of technical work, and acknowledge and correct errors.” Engineers have a professional responsibility to uphold high standards of accuracy and integrity in technical work. For example, a peer-reviewed journal publication may contain an error or otherwise erroneous information that should be pointed out to the authors and corrected in the journal, thereby contributing to the overall quality of the field. However, balancing the obligation to provide honest and constructive criticism with the potential to cause unintended professional harm to the authors can pose an ethical dilemma. How might one ethically navigate this issue? Hint: Resolving this dilemma is balancing ethical obligations to uphold the quality and integrity of technical work and considering potential harm. Approaching the situation with professionalism, empathy, and a focus on constructive improvement would be one way, and perhaps the best way, to resolve this dilemma.

3. Potential conflict of interest

Potential conflicts of interest are common ethical concerns in the professional world. For example, consider an engineer working on a project to develop a new system for a spacecraft their company is manufacturing under contract. The engineering team must select a supplier for a critical propulsion system component as part of the contract. The engineer finds out that one of the potential suppliers is a company owned by a friend they knew from college. They offer competitive pricing and claim to have the expertise to deliver the required components on schedule. However, you are aware of other concerns about the reliability and quality of this supplier’s products. Choosing your friend’s company as the supplier could potentially create a conflict of interest because that decision could compromise the objectivity and impartiality of the selection process. On the one hand, selecting this supplier could strengthen your relationship with your friend and benefit them financially. On the other hand, it may undermine the project’s integrity if the supplier fails to deliver high-quality components on time, jeopardizing the success of the spacecraft and damaging your company’s reputation. How might one navigate this conflict of interest ethically?

Other Examples of Ethical Concerns

Other examples of ethical concerns for a professional engineer may include the following:

  • 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 or the receipt of kickbacks.
  • Improper treatment of confidential or proprietary information.
  • Failure to ensure or advise on 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., one party gaining something of benefit for doing something else to benefit another party.
  • Spreading disinformation. Typically defined as the deliberate creation and sharing of false or manipulated information intended to deceive and mislead others to protect selfish self-interests, cause harm, or for financial gain.
  • Intimidation by employers, co-workers, or 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 initial concerns. However, the issues are not always so simple or clear-cut, and resolving an ethical concern may not have a clear path forward.

Resolution of Ethical Concerns

In many cases, an engineer may seek advice from a colleague or manager to help resolve an ethical issue. Different viewpoints can shed light on aspects of the matter. Usually, a resolution of the concerns 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. The goal is to arrive at a reasonable, ethical, and fair resolution given the circumstances while also considering the perspectives and interests of all parties involved. In this regard, some compromise may also be acceptable. However, it is also essential to ensure that any proposed solutions align with legal requirements as well as ethical standards.

Consider the following examples, which may also pose scenarios for further discussion in a group setting.

1. Professional obligations

Responsibilities to employers and confidentiality considerations that otherwise would have prevented an engineer from acting ethically and in the public interest are considered exceptionally seriously by professional engineering societies and other authorities. All engineering societies, including the AIAA, have ethics review boards. They also may have legal implications through the courts and aviation certification authorities like the FAA or EASA. Such issues can have severe repercussions for employers and employees alike. In the case of a breach of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), for example, legal consequences and/or fines are always likely. For pilots and other FAA-certified individuals, suspension or revocation of licenses can result. For organizations, a serious breach of the FARs could mean that operating certifications could be temporarily or permanently revoked.

2. Unethical employers

An employee may discover that they are working for an unethical employer, perhaps even one with ongoing legal problems. Therefore, the employee must be especially vigilant to ensure they are not implicated in their employer’s unethical and/or illegal behavior. Employers have many incentives to refute accusations of unethical or criminal misconduct made against them by employees or others. Indeed, legal precedent, at least in the U.S., shows that employers can defend their actions by attempting to implicate their employees or others in their existing issues or attacking their professional credibility. While workplace intimidation or bullying by employers is not only unethical and illegal, it still happens. Unfortunately, a toxic or dictatorial corporate culture is the primary reason for employee attrition, which is an unhealthy environment for everyone. Some employees may choose to “walk away” and resign from organizations facing ethical dilemmas or wrongdoing rather than stay and potentially face professional, legal, or reputational consequences.

3. Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is usually (perhaps always) a last resort toward the potential resolution of an ethical matter. Still, it is not an uncommon action based on legal case history for an employee to take legal or other action against their organization if it exhibits poor judgment, questionable conduct, use of unsafe processes, or even perform some form of illegal activity. For example, corporate disinformation is an illegal action because it involves the dissemination of misleading information about the organization or the concealment of potentially damaging information. In the U.S., under federal and state laws, employees who have reported illegal conduct, unlawful intimidation, safety hazards, disinformation, and other such problems in an organization are (theoretically) protected against retaliation by an employer. Nevertheless, whistleblowing should never be considered the first or even an early action by an employee to resolve an ethical matter. In most cases, employees will seek sound legal advice before acting as a whistleblower, so options for potential resolution can be considered. Various factors, including personal values and the risk of future unemployment, can also influence the decision to be a whistleblower.

Check Your Understanding #1 – Ethical responsibilities of an organization

An engineer in an aircraft company raises concerns about a new system being used in an aircraft design. What is the ethical responsibility of the company?

Show solution/hide solution

The company has an ethical responsibility to listen to the concerns raised by this engineer. Ignoring the concern would be unethical and potentially dangerous and may have legal implications. The company should conduct a thorough investigation and analysis of the concerns. During this process, the company should maintain open lines of communication with the engineer, which helps build trust and ensures that the concerns are addressed effectively. The company should objectively weigh the potential concerns against other factors such as safety, performance, and economic considerations. The company then has an ethical and engineering responsibility to explore any design modifications or mitigation measures that may be needed. In this way, the company demonstrates its commitment to addressing its employees’ concerns and ensuring that engineering, ethical, and legal considerations are appropriately used in its design and decision-making processes.

Consequences of Ethical Misconduct

Professional engineering societies, such as AIAA, all have ethics review boards. For serious ethics violations by individuals, these boards may issue sanctions that include suspension or expulsion from the society, sometimes simultaneously revoking 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 ethical misconduct scandals at Volkswagen over a vehicle emissions control device and at Boeing Commercial Aircraft over the flight-control system malfunction that led to two fatal crashes of the 737-MAX with the loss of 346 lives are now case studies of egregious ethical misconduct. The aftermath of these cases has resulted in considerable harm to the two organizations, their employees, the professional engineering field as a whole, and the public at large. In both cases, an emphasis on corporate profits over sound engineering and safety practices was at the root of the ethical misconduct. Boeing and Volkswagen were subjected to criminal prosecution and massive billion-dollar fines in the U.S. justice system. Of particular concern for aviation is that the “Misleading statements, half-truths, and omissions communicated by Boeing employees to the FAA impeded the government’s ability to ensure the safety of the flying public.”

Of course, bad outcomes will always transpire in any organizational culture that emphasizes profits over ethical conduct and the well-being of their employees and the public, especially if they also go so far as to discredit, threaten, or otherwise punish anyone bold enough to dissent with their actions. Such actions are not only unethical but also illegal. However, an engineer’s ethical responsibilities must still consider essential factors such as costs and schedules on behalf of their employer. The better news is that the attention brought to such ethical misconduct scandals, especially the massive professional, legal, and billion-dollar financial fallout for Boeing, means that similar issues are much less likely to occur in the future. However, only time will tell, and such matters will not be quickly forgotten; changes will only succeed if they are supported by strong ethical leadership from management.

Even if absolved from criminal wrongdoing, one lesson to learn from such cases 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. Underrating the importance of ethics by corporate leadership is a damaging and massively costly experience. While calls for change usually emerge after engineering decisions that become tragic and may cause loss of life, scholars have argued that each new generation of students and 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 strive to maintain a constant commitment to adhere to academic ethics. Academic institutions, such as colleges and universities, try 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 and their standing for accreditation. Academic integrity is at the core of student ethical conduct, and all students must fully participate in maintaining and fostering academic integrity; Unus malus mali multos corrumpit.

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


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 and submitting it as one’s work. Closely rewording (paraphrasing) content found from other sources, such as changing or adding a word 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., previously graded homework or essay) to satisfy the requirements of 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 by others, can be avoided by responsibly and ethically completing one’s assignments, including homework and exams. In most cases, assignments will be completed individually unless a group activity has been assigned. A student should never copy work from another student or misrepresent another student’s work as their own. Examples of cheating include copying homework answers from another student or using unauthorized resources during an exam. Such unauthorized resources may consist of 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 even 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 instructor or other faculty have expressly authorized the release of the answers.

Copyright Matters

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, graphics, diagrams, figures, videos, music, designs, etc. Remember that copyright law also applies to all forms of digital media, including all types of 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 “work 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 other organization (e.g., as a paid consultant to the organization), 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 a standard operating practice. Nevertheless, a consultant may not have publication rights to work produced under a work-for-hire agreement.

Copyright also protects both published and unpublished work, i.e., a given work on tangible media does not need to be formally published anywhere to be covered by copyright law. It is a fallacy that the copyright symbol \copyright needs to be used and attached to copyright any work. Nevertheless, if used, a copyright notice should contain the word “copyright” or a “c” in a circle \copyright, the date of publication, and the name of the author or owner of all the work. However, copyright is always implied on any authored materials in tangible, physical, or electronic media. Copyright also applies to most, if not all, college and university course materials such as a professor’s course packets, course slides, homework problems, exam questions, solutions, etc.

Copyright law cannot protect intangibles, e.g., ideas. Just because someone has a good idea does not mean it is immediately protected under copyright law. Nevertheless, if someone writes down or records the idea on any tangible media, including paper or electronic formats, then their idea will be immediately protected under copyright law. The idea, however, must be original and/or creative. Scientific and historical facts, as well as accepted theories, established methods and equations, and any content that is considered “common knowledge” are generally not protected under copyright law.

Avoiding Copyright Infringement

It should always be assumed that copyright applies to all work products, published or otherwise. Copyright rules and laws can be complicated but generally apply from the date of creation plus 70 years after the author’s death, i.e., copyright is legally enforceable for the author’s entire lifetime plus 70 years beyond that. However, there are several categories in which copyrighted content may be published and used by others, so caution should be employed to fully comply with copyright protocols and laws.

Public Domain

When the copyright expires, the work becomes in the public domain, which means it is available without any concerns over who holds the rights to it, so anyone can freely use it in whatever form they want. However, they still cannot claim ownership of the work. If known, proper attribution is an ethical responsibility, even though it may not be legally required. All work published in the United States before 1924 is in the public domain. Work published after 1923 but before 1978 does not enter the public domain for 95 years from its publication date.

U.S. Government publications are generally always in the public domain, and 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 principal 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, sharing research data is common practice, although any republication of the data will always require specific permission from the work’s creator to satisfy both ethical and copyright responsibilities.

Some other types of materials may already be in the public domain, but this is rare. Materials found on Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and the like are generally not in the public domain, even though the copyright holder often declares them as open-source (e.g., under a Creative Commons license). Creative Commons (CC) licenses promote collaboration, sharing, and creativity while respecting the original creators’ copyright. Still, using such work products should always be done with attribution, depending on the type of Creative Commons (CC) license.

Fair Use

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

The underlying rationale of “fair use” for academic purposes is that the education of students will benefit by including some parts of the copyrighted material. A broader 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 acceptable 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 policy; a simple acknowledgment may be all that is needed in most cases.

Very few copyright holders will 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.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that provides free, easy-to-use legal tools for creators and users of creative work. Creative Commons licenses allow creators to share their work with others while retaining certain rights, including those afforded to them under copyright law. There are six different Creative Commons licenses, each with its own set of conditions. These conditions range from requiring attribution to the original creator to allowing commercial use of the work. By using a Creative Commons (CC) license, creators can ensure that their work is freely and openly shared but also used to align with their goals and values.

Individuals, organizations, and governments worldwide have widely adopted Creative Commons licenses. They are used by professors, artists, musicians, writers, teachers, and scientists, among others, to share their work and promote collaboration and innovation. Many online platforms support Creative Commons licenses, making it easy for people to share their work and for users to find and use it legally. For example, this e-textbook is made available under a Creative Commons (CC), non-commercial, and non-derivative license. However, it should be noted that a CC license sits “on top of” the copyright and does not replace it, so the copyright symbol \copyright (if used) indicates the copyright holder, and the CC statement indicates the public usage rights the copyright holder is granting. It is important to remember that copyright law still applies to work published under a CC license, and the terms an author uses to share their work should always be respected, which is a legal requirement and an ethical obligation.

Gaining Permissions

Using work products from other sources should always be done with permission, regardless of the copyright status. An author or creator and hence the 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 from an author of a copyrighted work 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 consent to use the work from the author need not be obtained. For example, all of the images in this e-textbook are made freely available for anyone to use under a CC license. However, attribution is still expected and is legally required.

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 file-sharing, 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 to the user by the copyright holder.

Penalties for copyright infringement may be severe and include civil and criminal penalties. Those liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay actual or statutory damages per each infringed work. 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 FAQs at www.copyright.gov/help/faq.

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

What is the DMCA?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, is a 1998 supplement to U.S. copyright law. This law applies to copyrighted material uploaded to the internet in digital form. 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 peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing of software or software piracy.

Exceptions to downloading digital content may include fair use, which is considered acceptable in an academic setting but not always for other purposes. For infringements of copyright law under the 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. For example, suppose a copyright holder files a DMCA Takedown Notice for a potential copyright violation on the internet or other online platforms. In that case, the internet service provider is required by law to take specific actions. To this end, the law mandates 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. Such situations are relatively rare, but they do happen.

Ethical Scenarios to Consider

Learning more about professional ethics and ethical conduct can be achieved by considering ethical scenarios. These provide concrete examples of dilemmas or situations where ethical principles come into play, allowing one to analyze, discuss, and reflect on the various factors involved. By engaging with ethical scenarios, one can develop ethical reasoning skills, better understand different perspectives, and cultivate a deeper appreciation for the complexities of ethical decision-making. An active approach to learning more about ethics helps one apply ethical principles to situations that may be encountered in professional practice.

Check Your Understanding #2 – Possible ethical scenarios

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

  1. You are lying to your employer.
  2. You cheat on an examination.
  3. Your organization is secretly monitoring your emails.
  4. You falsify data for an engineering report.
  5. You copy a solutions manual for a published textbook and put it online.
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1. There is no law against lying to one’s employer, but it would undoubtedly be considered unethical by any reasonable standard. The most significant component of any working relationship is trust. Employers must trust that their employees will act with integrity and best represent their business. Likewise, employees must trust that their employer is operating ethically and legally.

2. Cheating on an exam is unethical, but it is not illegal. Nevertheless, cheating on an exam will violate your honor code if you are a student. If caught, the consequences of your actions 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 if legal under the law, this is undoubtedly an ethical concern; no reputable employer would do such. 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 egregious misconduct by the professional community. The consequences on a professional career would be dire. 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 violate U.S. copyright law and be 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.

Check Your Understanding #3 – Academic and ethical behavior

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. It’s both ethical and legal.
  2. It’s unethical but still legal.
  3. It’s both unethical and illegal.
  4. It’s legal but violates the student honor code.
Show solution/hide solution

The copyright of any homework solutions would generally belong to whoever created them, e.g., a professor, course instructor, or teaching assistant. However, a legitimate argument could be made that they were “work for hire,” so the copyright may also belong to the college or university. In either case, without permission 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 (response number 3). This infraction could also violate a college or university student’s honor code for fraud.

Using ChatGPT

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) language model. ChatGTP says, “I exist solely to provide information, answer questions, and engage in conversations. While AI technology advances, humans ultimately control its development and implementation. AI is designed to assist and augment human capabilities, not to replace or overpower them.”

As a student or a practicing engineer, ChatGPT can be a valuable tool to assist you with various tasks and enhance your learning experience. However, using it effectively, responsibly, and ethically and understanding its limitations is essential. ChatGPT annunciates the following points about its capabilities and limitations:

  1. “Research and Learning: ChatGPT can help you find information and understand complex topics by providing explanations and examples. Use it to clarify concepts, gather different perspectives, and explore ideas. However, always cross-verify the information you receive and consult authoritative sources to ensure accuracy. ChatGTP has many areas for improvement in engineering topics.”
  2. Writing Assistance: “ChatGPT can help generate ideas, overcome writer’s block, and get feedback on your writing. It can suggest alternative phrases and sentence structures or provide examples. However, remember that it is still an AI model, not a substitute for your critical thinking and creativity. Take the suggestions as starting points and tailor them to your writing style.”
  3. Language Practice: “Conversing with ChatGPT can help improve your language skills. You can practice grammar and vocabulary and even have simulated discussions on various topics.”
  4. Problem-Solving and Programming: “ChatGPT can assist you in understanding programming concepts, debugging code, and providing general problem-solving guidance. It can suggest possible solutions or help you identify errors. However, be cautious when relying on ChatGPT for programming tasks, as it may not always produce correct or optimized code.”
  5. Ethical Considerations: “ChatGPT is a machine-learning model trained on vast amounts of data. While it strives to provide helpful information, it may sometimes generate biased or incorrect responses. Be critical of the information it provides and assess its reliability. Avoid using ChatGPT for sensitive or personal topics that require human expertise or empathy.”
  6. Academic Integrity: “It is important to remember that different universities use AI tools differently. Some instructors will encourage you to use ChatGPT as a resource, while others may ban it altogether. It is essential to consult your university’s academic integrity policy on using AI tools.”
  7. Privacy and Security: “When using ChatGPT, be mindful of the information you share. Avoid sharing personal or sensitive data. Treat ChatGPT like any other public platform, and refrain from sharing your private information.”
  8. Supplement Your Learning: “ChatGPT should be considered a supplementary tool, not a replacement for traditional learning resources, textbooks, or professors. Use it to complement your studies, clarify doubts, and explore new ideas. Always maintain a balanced approach to ensure comprehensive learning.”

Remember that while ChatGPT can assist, taking an active role in one’s education and professional development is essential. To this end, “it is important to engage in critical thinking, seek diverse perspectives, consult reliable sources, speak with professors, and actively participate in one’s own learning. It is important to check the academic institution’s policies before using ChatGTP to help with assignments.”

Is copying a statement that is considered common knowledge also plagiarism?

No, it is not plagiarism. Common knowledge is not considered plagiarism because it is widely known to others and is accepted information that can be freely used without attribution. For example, the statement: “The aerodynamic center of a thin airfoil in incompressible flow is at the quarter-chord.” is widely known and accepted as “common knowledge.” It does not require attribution because it is a common fact that all engineers know very well. Therefore, using this statement in your writing without providing a specific citation or attribution would not be considered plagiarism. Likewise, short phrases, names, titles, etc., are regarded as common knowledge and are free for anyone to use without any concern for plagiarism.

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 concerning 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), it may be a “work for hire,” and the work’s copyright 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 declared in the “public domain,'” which includes most work products of the U.S. government or those published before 1924.

Generally, permission to use the work should be obtained from the owner, 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. Professors and other instructors use content from many sources to enhance the educational experience of their students, and much of this content may be protected under the terms of fair use. This is one reason why students should not distribute any course materials beyond their personal use of such materials. In many cases, there could be legal consequences, such as a lawsuit for copyright infractions other than fair use, and this is never a good position to be in. As a student, it is essential to understand and follow copyright laws because they apply to everyone. Properly attributing work shows respect for the creators and demonstrates an 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 downloaded from the internet.
  • An engineer conducts a design using pirated software from the internet. The engineer later learns that the software gives inaccurate results, but a report that contains results from the software has already been published. What should the engineer do?
  • Occasionally, a conflict of interest may occur accidentally during 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?
  • Occasionally, engineers may face economic pressures that counter reasonable and responsible engineering practices. Discuss this issue from an ethical perspective.
  • Discuss any scenario when an engineer’s moral principles may conflict with their ethical principles.
  • Engineers may sometimes have to make decisions involving cost and safety trade-offs. But bad things often happen when embedded in an organizational culture that emphasizes profits over safety and punishes those who dissent. Discuss this issue.
  • Do you know what false news is? Have you ever heard false news?
  • How would you describe disinformation in your own words?

Other Useful Online Resources

To dive further into how to subscribe to ethical conduct in the field of engineering, visit the following websites:

  1. This is according to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).


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Introduction to Aerospace Flight Vehicles Copyright © 2022 – 2024 by J. Gordon Leishman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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