Policing the Academy for Pirates

Educators are on the wrong side of the copyright wars


Last month, the U.S. Senate passed legislation enlisting colleges in the effort to police peer-to-peer networks and file-sharing, in order to prevent "piracy" by students of music, movies, and for that matter, books.

One might wonder exactly why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who introduced the amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, then tempered it when there was an outcry from college administrators—is concerned about campus file sharing, other than a general commitment to fight crime. A cynic might suggest the entertainment industry's considerable patronage of the Democratic Party.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reid's measure "called on the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America to draft annual lists of the 25 colleges receiving the most notices of copyright infringement. Those colleges would face a choice: Either use technological tools to block peer-to-peer file sharing, or risk forfeiting federal student aid.

In other words, colleges would be put under the supervision of the RIAA and MPAA. You need not wonder who lobbied for this extraordinary corporate authority over funding for American higher education. The punitive portions of the amendment were withdrawn after college officials reacted with outrage; what remained was a mere an exhortation for college administrators to act as entertainment police, and to explain to Congress and the entertainment industry what steps they're taking to combat piracy.

According to the Chronicle, the American Association of Universities learned of the new law just days before it was to be voted on. Were I the AAU, I'd be watching every piece of legislation to come through Congress from now on. It wouldn't be surprising ot see similar or identical measures slipped into various bills in the future.

Reid's amendment is a clear illustration of the effectiveness of lobbying. It wouldn't be unreasonable to think the trade groups actually wrote the text of the law. It vests in these groups a vast amount of money—taxpayer money—and, hence, power. The industry has already managed to move into a quasi-policing role, frequently working with federal, state, and local authorities on copyright and conspiracy investigations.

The bill also follows a continuing, troubling pattern of Congress deputizing and forcing corporations (money laundering laws, for example) and other private entities to monitor their customers for law-breaking, and to absorb the costs of compliance (the latest example is the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act, which deputizes ISPs and private banks to prevent customers from patronizing gambling sites).

But this is a particularly egregious case because it enforces rules that are specifically inimical to education, and that run contrary the fundamental mission of a college or university—the sharing of information. The reasons colleges have given for not wanting this sort of regulation are that it would be costly and outside their purview or expertise, and that it would be burdensome and likely ineffective. Of course, they insist, to a man or woman they oppose piracy.

Of course. But perhaps this move by Reid will at least get college administrators reevaluating the whole notion of piracy, and about the role or function of copyright plays in the educational mission of their institutions. Offhand, it seems odd that an educational institution would oppose the disseminating or sharing information—that, and not football, dorm life, or counseling services, would seem to be the irreplaceable essence of education. Isn't the exchange of ideas and information the business of colleges and universities?

One would think that higher education administrators would prefer information be more liquid than coagulated and monopolized. Even films and music contain important information subject to pedagogy and academic research. The fact that copyrighted textbooks can cost $100 a pop represents is not just the unfortunate result of a property claim to information, for example, but is a concrete barrier to the actual flow of information. Google's idea of putting massive academic libraries online for free—a project from which they've retreated bit by bit because of pressure from publishers and other copyright-holders—would in theory be a huge boon to the business of education, the dream of a John Milton or a Samuel Johnson.

Rather than enforcing anti-sharing rules, colleges ought to be fighting the expansion of copyright law, and investing in and exploring filesharing software and sites. Much of the content that an institution of higher education provides is also already available on the Internet, and colleges would be better off getting into the business of sorting it, evaluating it, disseminating it, and re-presenting it—the sort of thing their expertise is good for.

That Harry Reid is doing the bidding of the entertainment industry isn't surprising. But the very essence of a university ought to place it in fierce opposition to demands that it police its students for the excessive sharing of information. On the contrary, colleges and universities ought to be working toward an environment in which information can be shared with more freedom.