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Online Chat About College File Sharing Next Week

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The Chronicle of Higher Education will host an online chat next Thursday, May 22, at 1 p.m. Eastern with Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University:

    Colleges are under increasing political and legal pressure to block file sharing by their students, who use campus networks to obtain free music rather than buying recordings. Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University at University Park, has two approaches for dealing with the issue. One is a policy of tough enforcement: Penn State has already started monitoring its network for file-sharing activity and shutting down any it finds. The other approach — currently a trial balloon only — would be to create a system for colleges to pay a record-industry-approved group an annual blanket fee to allow students to download songs as they please.

The issues are explained more fully here:

    Right now Mr. Spanier is pursuing two very different tacks. One is a policy of tough enforcement: Penn State has already started monitoring its network for file-sharing activity and shuts down any it finds.

    The other tack — little more than a suggestion at this point — is more radical and may reshape the debate on file sharing. Why not pay a record-industry-approved music service a yearly, blanket fee, Mr. Spanier wonders, and let students download songs as they please? Record-industry officials are skeptical, but say the idea is worth talking about.

    ….Blocking or examining network transmissions on the basis of content leads down a slippery slope, says Gregory A. Jackson, chief information officer of the University of Chicago. As for offering students legal forms of sharing movies or music, Mr. Jackson finds that an interesting solution, but one fraught with difficult questions: How much does the service cost? How long will the files last? Is the university responsible if students swap them?

    Fundamentally, he says, these shouldn’t be higher-education issues. “I’m worried that we are heading down a path that will wildly complicate our lives, all to preserve something that is essentially archaic” — the record companies’ existing business model of selling CD’s and tapes, he says. “Graham seems to have this crusade, which I don’t fully understand.”

    Others think they do. Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that the entertainment industry holds tremendous clout in Washington, and that power was on display when Mr. Spanier and other college administrators testified before Congress on file sharing. “The entertainment industries had been pressuring the university community, and they felt that they weren’t getting as much cooperation as they wanted,” he says. “So they engineered a hearing in which several university administrators were just short of publicly lashed.”

    “The message was delivered loud and clear” — and that message, according to Mr. von Lohmann, was: “You fail to address our concerns at your peril.”

    ….some who study copyright law and technology worry that Mr. Spanier is accommodating the entertainment industry too much and proposing policies that could have a detrimental effect on higher education and the Internet.

    The pressure by the entertainment industry on colleges is “part of a much larger strategy” to force commercial Internet-service providers to monitor traffic, filter infringement, and terminate subscribers, says Mr. von Lohmann, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A victory on the university level will no doubt be used as a precedent.”

    What’s more, he says, Penn State’s administrators are misreading the Digital Millennium Copyright Act if they think the university should start monitoring the network. The law “very clearly states that there is no requirement to monitor,” he says.

    ….Moves at Penn State and other colleges to shut down certain types of file sharing blatantly defy academic and intellectual freedom, [Siva Vaidhyanathan] says. To replace existing file sharing with a licensed service glosses over a copyright issue that hasn’t been sufficiently explored in court. If the entertainment industry has a problem with a user, it should be the industry’s responsibility to sue.

    “I would love it if the industries came to sue me,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan says.

    “I’ve got several thousand MP3s sitting in a file open to the whole world through Gnutella. If they think that is a copyright violation, if they want to show that I came upon those files illegally, then let’s have that out.” [Chronicle of Higher Education]

The blanket license is an excellent idea, and the concentrated intranets of universities and colleges a great place to test such a system out for more widespread application. I agree with Vaidhyanathan and von Lohman that system monitoring is a huge mistake, one not in the best interests of students, universities, the Internet or the legal status of copyright in America.

Log on to the chat next week and let Spanier know how you feel about the matter.

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About Eric Olsen