Madison, Wis. — They come - students and teachers from all over Wisconsin - for the fun of working with computers and brushing up on technical skills. They leave with what their teachers hope is a new sense of computer ethics.
Even first-graders here at the annual University of Wisconsin summer Computerfest are reminded that they own the work that they program themselves.
''You don't make a copy of anyone's story without asking,'' explains Computerfest principal Mary Gomez. ''I think we have to start talking very early with children about the whole concept of ownership and privacy.''
Relaxed attitudes on the part of many computer users about the ethics of copying others' programs and looking in on private information have evolved into a serious national problem, according to many experts in the software field.
That's why Wisconsin's three-summers-old Computerfest stresses the importance of ethics in virtually every class. Older students here, for instance, discuss 'hacking,'' the teen penchant for gaining access to institutional data banks.
''The computer can be used for good or for bad - all we can do is talk about the moral and legal consequences of misuse,'' says Ms. Gomez.
There is ample talk, too, about the increasingly widespread practice - sometimes for the best of motives by teachers - of duplicating copyrighted computer software. Many students here say home computers make the practice particularly easy. ''Bootlegging is pretty common,'' says Kris Westgard, who will be in the 11th grade at a Madison school this fall.
''There's a huge underground, nationally, of copying (computer) games. Accumulating a library has become kind of like having baseball cards,'' says David Moursand, chief executive officer of the International Council for Computers in Education. He blames a ''permissive'' society that constantly advertises ''something for nothing.''
''We find we have to be very careful about software availability here, or they'd (students and teachers) walk out with everything we have,'' observes Computer-fest director M. Vere DeVault.
For software producers, who often must charge a high price for discs because the market for computer programs is still small, the copying represents a direct loss of revenue. Many producers have accordingly built ''locks'' into their programs. But would-be duplicators can often buy ''locksmith'' discs that work around the copying roadblock. Says John Harvey, a math and computer educator at the University of Wisconsin: ''For every lock there's a key.''
Beyond the one copy of any disc most producers provide or allow with a purchase, duplication is a clear violation of federal copyright laws. But legal penalties - unless wholesale distribution is involved - are almost nonexistent.
Thus, the job of finding a solution is left largely to the nation's computer educators. Some schools try to avoid stocking their labs with computers that have two disc drives, which makes copying easy. But most educators now agree that talking with students and teachers about the problem and that setting policy guidelines and penalties may be the best approach.
Mr. Moursand's council developed a policy statement on copying, ''essentially saying, 'Don't do it,' '' he says. During the last year, the policy has been adopted by a number of school systems.
But last year some stolen software - illegal copies of copyrighted material - was recovered in the nearby suburb of Middleton, Wis., alerting police and educators there to the extent of the problem. ''We didn't really realize until then what the kids were doing,'' says juvenile officer David Cornwall of the Middleton Police Department, who works with the computer club at the high school.
This fall, computer courses in the Middleton/Cross Plains School District will include ethics discussions. In addition, a three-step disciplinary code will affect anyone caught making copies of software. ''Copying is really a widespread problem, and we decided we certainly had to face it,'' explains Mary Ann Allen, director of instruction.
By talking with students about computer ethics, and by disciplining those who defy the rules, a school system shows it is serious about correcting the problem - and this approach may prove to be one of the best ways to get at the problem, says Harry DeMaio, director of data security programs for IBM Corporation. In his view, the fundamental problem is less a lack of ethical concern than a lack of understanding the value of information.
''We tend to take it (information) for granted. It's shared so much that we often don't realize the potential impact or damage it can have. We've gotten so into the habit of copying information (documents, records, television programs) ... that the whole cultural thrust is to say, 'Hey, information is different than the contents of your wallet ... so transfer of it is no problem.' ''
That attitude also crops up in discussions with students at Computerfest about ''hacking.'' ''It's not something they find particularly shocking,'' says Ms. Gomez. ''It's more exciting than anything else.''
''Hacking is obviously against the law, and I wouldn't break the law,'' says John Arganian, who will be an 11th grader in Madison. ''But I think a lot of students think it's adventurous - like unlocking a door and seeing what's inside.''
Although the schools appear to have the primary chore of spelling out the ethics of computer use and why certain practices are wrong, parents must also be supportive for the strategy to work, Gomez says. ''It's difficult to imbue kids with morality - they have to live in an environment that supports that.''