This afternoon, in a Congressional office building, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on the Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, will convene a public hearing about digital piracy on college and university networks. Berman is Hollywood’s man in Congress -- literally! His Los Angeles Congressional district is home to many major movie and music studios.
Today’s hearing is the latest in a continuing Congressional review of digital piracy -- both on and off college networks. Digital piracy -- be it copy shops in Asia churning out thousands of counterfeit copies of CDs, DVDs, and computer software, or individuals downloading music, movies and software from the Internet -- involves big bucks. A recent report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation suggests that all forms of digital piracy and counterfeiting (including counterfeit clothing) cost Los Angeles area companies some $5.2 billion in lost revenue in 2005, and state and local governments $483 million in lost tax revenue. The development corporation reports that digital piracy and product counterfeiting cost Los Angeles 106,000 jobs in 2005.
There can be no posturing about the core issue: Copyright is a good thing. Copyright protects the rights of individuals and organizations that create and distribute music, movies, and other kinds of digital content and resources. Piracy is theft. Piracy is bad. Piracy is illegal.
That said, while there is no question that digital piracy -- by copy shops or college students -- is wrong, so too is the underlying assumption of today’s hearing: that college students are the primary source of digital piracy affecting the music and movie industries, and that campus officials are implicitly complicit in the illegal downloading done by college students.
Late last month, Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America  and point person in the entertainment industry’s campaign to stem the tide of digital piracy, particularly among college students, sent a letter  to some 2,000 college and university presidents, delivered via e-mail by David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. Sherman offered a pro forma acknowledgement that there has been some progress regarding “illegal file trafficking of copyrighted content on peer-to-peer (P2P) systems,” stating that the RIAA and others in the entertainment industry are “grateful for the proactive work of many institutions.” But Sherman’s letter also stated clearly that because “the piracy problem on campuses remains extensive and unacceptable,” the RIAA felt “compelled to escalate [its] deterrence” efforts, as reflected in a new wave of lawsuits under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, announced earlier in February.
(Meanwhile, there’s also some back room speculation around Washington that Mr. Sherman and others in the entertainment industry would like Congress to deal with digital piracy in the long-delayed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Who knows: Perhaps violations of copyright law will join drug convictions as cause for students to be ineligible to participate in government financial aid programs?)
The RIAA’s February lawsuits and Sherman’s February 28 letter to college presidents appears to be the first phase of a spring offensive targeting college students and coercing campus officials. The firm but polite language of Sherman’s letter outlines “a reasonable role that college administrators can play” in stemming P2P downloading. The last page of Sherman’s four-page letter identifies four “ways to prevent/reduce student exposure to lawsuits and DMCA notices.”
The RIAA wants colleges and universities to (1) implement a technical network solution; (2) offer an online music service to students; (3) take disciplinary action against students; and (4) provide user education programs about copyright and downloading. Additionally, in his cover letter Sherman suggests that campus officials can “faciliate the [RIAA’s] new deterrence program by forwarding pre-lawsuit letters” to students and others with access the campus network to settle legal claims ahead of RIAA lawsuits
All this smacks of extortion. The RIAA's proposed “remedies” represent an easily inferred threat to campus officials: Do as we “suggest” or we will sue your institution and hold you liable for the activities of your students.
The RIAA cites data that “college students, the most avid music fans, get more of their music from illegal peer-to-peer downloading than the rest of the population: 25 percent vs. 16 percent (percentage of total music acquisition from peer-to-peer downloading).” The RIAA claims that “more than half of college students download music and movies illegally.”
Some of this is simply a numbers game for press releases. The term “college student” generically applies to some 17 million Americans, ages 16-67, who take college courses. In this context, only a small proportion of the nation’s 17 million “college students” depend on campus networks for Internet access, and a far smaller number are downloading digital content. Yes, the downloading may be illegal, but the RIAA’s numbers don’t document some 8.5 million students engaged in illegal P2P activity.
While traditional college students who depend on campus networks for Internet access may, as the RIAA claims, get more of their music from P2P downloading than the general population, the size of the denominator of this college student population -- perhaps some 2 to 2.5 million full-time undergraduates who reside in college dorms and who depend on campus networks for Internet access -- pales when compared to the tens of millions of consumers who purchase broadband services from cable and telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, TimeWarner and Verizon.
The real numbers suggest that the RIAA has lost sight of the hemorrhaging of digital content via consumer broadband services as it focuses its legal campaign and PR efforts on college students. (In 2005, concurrent with the Supreme Court’s Grokster decision, a billboard in Los Angeles promoting SBC/Yahoo's DSL service used the tag line "faster downloading of music, movies and stuff." Of course the billboard did not say anything about how to pay for "this stuff.")
Additionally, the RIAA's numbers on “John Doe” lawsuits filed in 2004 and 2005, culled from its own press releases, indicate that college students accounted for just 4 percent (329) of the more than 8,400 “John Does” targeted in RIAA filings. In other words, “consumer piracy” represents a far greater threat to the music industry than does the admittedly inappropriate and illegal downloading and file sharing activity of college students on campus networks. Moreover, while the RIAA’s February 28 news release  asserts that “college students are the most avid music fans,” the RIAA’s 2005 Consumer Profile  reveals that college students (ages 18-24) account for approximately a sixth (roughly 15-17 percent) of the music buying population; in contrast, consumers aged 25 and older purchase two-thirds (66.9 percent) of all recorded music.
Sherman asserts that while “many schools have worked with [the RIAA] to recognize the [P2P] problem and address it effectively … a far greater number of schools … have done little or nothing at all.” Not so! Data from the fall 2006 Campus Computing Survey  indicate that the vast majority of colleges and universities have acceptable use policies to address copyright issues and digital piracy. A small but growing number of institutions are following the Cornell model of requiring network users -- students, faculty, and staff -- to complete an online user education tutorial about copyright, P2P, and acceptable use policies before they gain access to their campus e-mail accounts and the university network.
And many institutions punish students for inappropriate and illegal P2P activity. Poking fun at both campus officials and students, a 2003 "Doonesbury" cartoon highlighted the efforts of campus officials to pursue “digital downloaders.” More importantly, this past week the Educause CIO online discussion list has had an active conversation among campus officials about sanctions their instituitons impose for DMCA violations. In contrast, consumer ISPs provide no active user education on the P2P issue and do little or nothing to address digital piracy.
These numbers notwithstanding, the RIAA has not pursued consumer broadband providers on the copyright/downloading issue. When I raised this issue with an RIAA official in fall 2004, I was told, in essence, that the consumer broadband providers view litigation as a cost of doing business, while, in contrast, the RIAA knows that colleges and universities, when presented with the threat of litigation, will "jump."
The RIAA’s continuing -- and seemingly exclusive, if not myopic -- focus on college students as the primary source of digital piracy stands in stark contrast to the activities of its European affiliate. On January 17, the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industries threatened action against consumer broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs)  if they failed to move against users who illegally download digital content. Yes, the RIAA has sued individuals who used consumer broadband services to download or distribute digital content illegally. However, even as the illegal downloading and distribution on consumer networks presents a greater threat to digital content than the inappropriate P2P activity occurring over campus networks, the RIAA seems to focus its major PR (and Congressional) efforts on college students.
The campus community has been largely silent in response to the RIAA’s continuing PR assault. Yes, we in the campus community do care about copyright: the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities’ list of “Top 10 Public Policy Issues for Higher Education in 2005-6” cites intellectual property as a key policy issue for campus officials, noting that “respect for intellectual property -- created as part of faculty research and teaching or provided as commercial content by the information and entertainment industries -- will help institutions maximize and protect their own resources.” And yes, sadly, an occasional campus official has offered up unfortunate (if not just plain dumb) public comments about P2P on campus networks, saying that they don’t consider it a top campus IT priority.
Of course, no college president condones piracy. Still, it is discouraging, but not surprising, that college presidents have not been willing to challenge the RIAA’s PR campaign. Several have offered up their names and the prestige of their institutions to support the RIAA’s PR efforts. To date, however, none have stepped forward to state firmly that while their institutions are addressing digital piracy via user education and student sanctions, they also will not submit to the bullying tactics of RIAA officials.
Let’s be clear: I'm not condoning digital piracy. I'm on record in a variety of forums and published articles, spanning two decades, that copyright matters. Campuses and college students are an admittedly easy target for the music and movie industries concerned about digital piracy. But we are the wrong target. We in the campus community are doing more about P2P and digital piracy -- and doing it far better -- than the consumer broadband ISPs that provide Internet service to more than 45 percent of American households (more than 35 million homes and small businesses).
The RIAA's singleminded focus on college students -- and easily inferred threats to campus officials -- misses the larger issue: Digital piracy is a consumer market problem, not simply a campus issue.