Monday, November 12, 2007

The Feds, Copyright, and Ed

Eric Bangeman has an article in Ars Technica about the latest effort by content owners to make educators enforce content owners' rights for them. Here is a link to the full article, which is a bit exaggerated. Even with the exaggerations, it is disturbing for the federal government to require educators to be policing enforcement issues for private companies on pain of loss of federal funds. What's next, an amendment to Sarbanes Oxley that requires the CEO of companies to certify no employee infringes copyright? Or, how about a requirement that before we can receive U.S. mail, each of us has to certify to the Post Office that we don't infringe copyright? Or, how about a requirement that before we can get a drivers license, passport, or social security card we do the same? I hesitate to throw out such examples for fear they will give content owners ideas. Yes, I can imagine some saying, why not?

Here is the excerpt from the article:

New bill would punish colleges, students who don't become copyright cops

By Eric Bangeman | Published: November 11, 2007 - 11:15PM CT

A massive education bill (747-page PDF) introduced into Congress contains a provision that would force colleges and universities to offer "technology-based deterrents" to file-sharing under the pain of losing all federal financial aid. Section 494 of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 is entitled "Campus-Based Digital Theft Prevention" that could have just as easily been called "Motion Picture and Recording Industry Subsidies," as it could force schools into signing up for subscription-based services like Napster and Rhapsody.

Under the terms of the act, which is cosponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX), schools will have to inform students of their official policies about copyright infringement during the financial aid application and disbursement process. In addition, students will be warned about the possible civil and criminal penalties for file-sharing as well as the steps the schools take to prevent and detect illicit P2P traffic.

That's not all: schools would have to give students an alternative to file-sharing while evaluating technological measures (i.e., traffic shaping, deep packet inspection) that they could deploy to thwart P2P traffic on campus networks. Many—if not most—schools already closely monitor traffic on their networks, with some (e.g., Ohio University) blocking it altogether, and the bill would provide grants to colleges so they could evaluate different technological solutions.

The most objectionable part of the bill is the part that could force schools into signing up for music subscription services. In order to keep that beloved federal aid money flowing, universities would have to "develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property."

Introduced in 2003, campus-wide subscription agreements give students access to download services like Napster or Rhapsody whether they want it—or can use it (the iPod isn't supported by any of the subscription services). The services are typically funded by activity fees; by and large, they've been met with a collective yawn from students. Lack of iPod support is a major turn-off, as is the fact that the subscriptions end when a student graduates or transfers, rendering the downloads unplayable.

The Motion Picture Association of America doesn't see it that way. Chairman and CEO Dan Glickman called it a positive step in the fight against file-sharing, throwing out some unsubstantiated figures on how file-sharing allegedly costs jobs and hurts the economy. "Intellectual property theft is a worldwide problem that hurts our economy and costs more than 140,000 American jobs every year," said Glickman in a statement. "We are pleased to see that Congress is taking this step to help keep our economy strong by protecting copyrighted material on college campuses."

The Association of American Universities doesn't like the idea at all. In a letter (PDF) sent to Rep. Miller just before the bill was introduced, the group expressed its "grave concerns" about Section 494 of the bill. "We urge the Education and Labor Committee to reject the entertainment industry's proposal as it crafts its bill to reauthorize the HEA," reads the letter. "The proposal would mandate a completely inappropriate role for the Secretary of Education to single out individual institutions based on information under the control of the entertainment industry, force institutions to seek an unachievable goal of preventing illegal P2P file sharing, and risk the loss of student aid for countless students innocent of any illegal file sharing activity."


Bruce Boyden said...

Let's look at the actual text of the provision before sliding down the slippery slope. Universities receiving federal funding would be required to:

(1) make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copyrighted materials required to be disclosed under section 485(a)(1)(P); and

(2) develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.

I'm not a fan of these make-work federal funding requirements, e.g., "Constitution Day," that just make some legislator feel good. But there's nothing in the language here about enforcement, or requiring Napster or Rhapsody. Schools are required to distribute some pamphlets and develop (not implement) a couple of plans. Doomsday remains over the horizon.

William Patry said...

Thanks Bruce for your reflective comment, which was more on point than the article and my post.