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Software Professionals, Malpractice Law, and Codes of Ethics

By Bryan H. Choi

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 64 No. 5, Pages 22-24

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We all know what a professional is—or do we? For years, ACM has proclaimed that its members are part of a computing profession. But is it really a profession? Many people describe themselves as "professionals" in the colloquial sense of being paid to perform some specialized skill. Yet, only a few occupations are regarded as professions in the legal sense. Courts do not consider athletes or chefs to be professionals the way doctors and lawyers are. Likewise, courts have consistently excluded software developers from that select group.

To understand why U.S. law does not recognize computing as a profession—and whether that classification could be changed—calls for a fresh look at the law of professions. Why does the law distinguish professionals from nonprofessionals such as mechanics or pilots? What would happen if courts treated software developers like doctors or lawyers? What are professionals' legal duties of care and how do they differ from ethical codes of conduct? Can one bootstrap the other?


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