College File Swapping: Making the Illegal, Legal?

Colleges and universities are considering launching pilot projects with online music services this spring that would make music downloads as ubiquitous — and legal — as cable service in dorm rooms. Dr. Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said the hope of the programs would be to make the “illegal, legal.”

Spanier and Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), are co-chairmen of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities. The group, formed last fall to develop collaborative solutions to address music piracy on college campuses, held a press conference Tuesday to review its efforts.

The RIAA estimates there are more than 2.5 billion illegal downloads of copyrighted songs every month. While there are no numbers on what percentage of those downloads come from college campuses, it is a widely-held belief that college students, using university-supplied networks and bandwidth, are at the forefront.

Spanier said if music “so important to students,” then colleges and universities should strive to make it legally available to them.

“It would work much like cable access in dorm rooms. We bundle that into room and board fees,” Spanier said. “The committee is serving as a sort of marriage broker (between colleges and universities and online music services). We’re trying to explore how these things might work in the future.”

Spanier said a “dozen or so” schools are considering the pilot programs. The committee issued a Request for Information (RFI) about legitimate online music and movie services now available. The RFI was issued in June and a review is currently underway. The goal of the effort is the implementation of campus-based legitimate online music and movie services.

The Joint Committee does not plan to recommend a particular service, nor can it negotiate any specific online licensing agreement with schools; rather, the goal is to create a knowledge base of information for university administrators and music and movie officials to help facilitate existing or future conversations between legitimate online content services and schools.

The group also issued an RFI for technologies offered by various companies that could help curb illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) network file sharing on college and university campuses. It is intended to lead to on-campus pilot projects beginning this academic year that will afford a practical demonstration and evaluation of the utility and effectiveness of the technologies.

“The collaborative efforts of higher education and the entertainment industry have already gone a long way toward addressing problems associated with the piracy of copyrighted material,” Spanier said. “The progress in charting solutions and in awareness has been dramatic in recent months.”

Spanier said his group aims to provide a range of resources to school administrators in three basic areas: educational efforts (including practices surrounding the use of copyrighted works, student responsibility, and implications for P2P network file sharing), technological solutions, and examining differences and exploring prospects for collaboration on legislative initiatives.

“The epidemic of illegal file sharing dramatically impacts both of our respective communities. We are in this boat together, and thats why collaborative solutions are the best approach,” said Sherman. “Within a short amount of time, there’s been a sea change in the awareness of piracy’s impact and the appreciation of the need to do something about it.”

The committee also recently released a white paper, Background Discussion of Copyright Law and Potential Liability for Students Engaged in P2P File Sharing on University Networks, designed to help higher education administrators better understand the application of copyright law to P2P network file sharing and students’ legal liability when they engage in file swapping.

This fall, the committee will release a “best practices” document intended to serve as a resource to universities and colleges by outlining some of the approaches other schools have taken in setting campus network use policies and in educating students, faculty and staff about respect for copyrights and the liability for illegal file sharing.

Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), told the press conference he has spent considerable time talking on college campuses about copyright issues and said he was “kind of dismayed” about the “casual regard” some students have regarding file sharing.

“Students need to have a sense of the moral compact: to take something that does not belong to you is thievery,” Valenti said.

Spanier said colleges and universities were addressing that problem by holding orientations that contain a P2P element and restricting student bandwidth.

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