Swiftboating Higher Education on P2P

The latest salvo in the entertainment industry's campaign against illegal downloading of movies and music -- aided and abetted by Congress -- is wrong, and students should help fight it, Kenneth C. Green argues.


November 15, 2007

Remember Ronald Reagan? During the primary campaign in 1980 and later his presidential debates with Jimmy Carter, Reagan would offer an admonishing “there you go again” whenever his opponents made statement he deemed to misrepresent his positions.

Clearly we need someone to offer a very public, very stern, and clearly admonishing “there you go again” to Cary Sherman of the Recording Industry Association of American and Dan Glickman, the former Congressman and cabinet secretary who now serves as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Sherman and Glickman, along with the MPAA and RIAA, have successfully “swiftboated” higher education on the issue of P2P – the illegal downloading, “peer to peer,” of digital content. They have continually and successfully portrayed college students as digital pirates and campus officials as unconcerned about and unresponsive to the use of campus networks for the illegal P2P downloading of copyrighted content, specifically movies and music.

Of course, ample data clearly indicate that illegal P2P downloading is a really consumer market problem, not limited to college students and college campuses. For example, college students accounted for less than 4 percent of the more than 8,400 John Doe lawsuits for illegal P2P downloading filed by the RIAA in 2004-25. Data from my annual Campus Computing Survey confirm that the vast majority of colleges and universities have campus policies to address illegal P2P and to inform students about appropriate use issues related to their access to and activities on campus networks. Moreover, colleges and universities are far more conscientious and concerned about illegal P2P activity than are the consumer broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, and TimeWarner, that, at times, implicitly promote P2P downloading as a reason to upgrade to higher speed consumer broadband services.

The latest episode in the MPAA/RIAA swiftboat campaign on P2P unfolded on November 9, via the long awaited legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. Buried in the legislation, now called “The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007,” are Congressional mandates on illegal P2P activity that take dead aim at colleges and universities.

Section 494 of the bill (on page 411 of the 747 page document) offers provisions to address “Campus-Based Digital Piracy.” In current format, the bill would require any college or university participating in federal student financial aid programs -- meaning almost all, from the nation’s elite research universities to local community colleges, as well as the vast majority of for-profit colleges -- (a) to “make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copy-righted materials” and (b) to “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.”

Give them due credit: Glickman and Sherman deserve points for persistence. As drafted, Section 494 reflects the key points Mr. Sherman pressed in a letter to college presidents distributed by the American Council on Education earlier this year: Buy a subscription service and acquire a “technology solution” to deter illegal P2P activity. And yet these provisions are, in essence, extortion: the message to campus officials, initially in Sherman’s letter and now in the provisions of Section 494, is that you can buy your way out of the P2P quagmire.

Earlier this year I described Mr. Sherman’s letter to college presidents and the March Congressional hearing on P2P that followed as evidence of the media association’s “Spring Offensive.” We now see that the Spring Offensive has new energy and impact in Fall 2007.

Rather than address the proliferation of P2P activity in the consumer market, often aided and abetted by consumer broadband service providers, the MPAA and RIAA have opted to focus on college students, campus networks, and college administrators – admittedly easy (and often unsympathetic) targets. In an era of digital media, are consumers understandably confused by the Supreme Court’s 1978 BetaMax decision that said they could use VCRs (and today, by extension, TIVO and similar technologies) to record “over the air” content for personal use? Probably so. But while the real, long-term solution on illegal P2P activity should focus on user education, the MPAA and RIAA apparently feel that legislation offers a quicker remedy.

Glickman and Sherman have successfully moved the Congressional activity on P2P from public hearings to draft legislation. While at face value these three requirements - to inform students and employees about illegal downloading, to develop plans for offering alternatives (i.e. subscription services) to P2P illegal downloading, and to explore technology deterrents -- seem reasonable, they are really the soft glove that hides the steel fist of federal enforcement. The legislation would implicitly require campuses to spend money for music subscription services such as Napster or Ruckus, and also spend significant sums for “technology-based deterrents” to prevent illegal P2P that experts in both the campus community and the corporate sector have deemed ineffective as a solution to address the problem of P2P in both the campus and consumer market.

(Speaking at a June 5 Congressional hearing on illegal P2P downloading, Vance Ikezoye, president Audible Magic, one of the firms that provides a “technology deterrent” for illegal P2P activity, acknowledged that “technology will never be the entire solution [to P2P piracy] … just one of the tools.” Adrian Sannier, CIO at Arizona State University, told members of Congress assembled for the June 5 hearing that his campus had spent approximately $450,000 on P2P technology deterrent software over the past six years. Sannier described P2P as an “arms race.”)

Moreover, the draft legislation authorizes (but does not appropriate) funds, controlled by the secretary of education, “to develop, implement, operate, improve, and disseminate programs of prevention, education, and cost-effective technological solutions, to reduce and eliminate the illegal downloading and distribution of intellectual property.” These grants may also be used for the “support of higher education centers that will provide training, technical assistance, evaluation, dissemination, and associated services and assistance to the higher education community [on matters of P2P piracy] as determined by the Secretary and institutions of higher education.”

Come on! Is this really a top policy priority for the Department of Education? Should the Department really be underwriting campus centers to conduct research and develop user education programs at the behest of the music and movie industries?

In current format Section 494 is, in essence, a set of unfunded federal mandates that will provide substantial subsidies to the music industry and to the firms that claim to offer successful “technology-based deterrents” intended to stem illegal P2P activity on campus networks. Of course the cost of these unfunded mandates will be passed on to students, either as increased tuition or as supplemental student fees. And then Members will, of course, complain loudly about the rising cost of higher education, a concern that forms the underlying premise of the overall Higher Education Act bill!

As drafted, Section 494 reflects the continuing efforts of the MPAA and RIAA to seek Congressional remedy for market shifts. For example, more than a dozen years ago Congress enacted a small tax on blank media –think of blank cassette tapes – because consumers were buying and copying music cassettes, perhaps one for their car, perhaps one for a friend. Note that the music industry did not complain to the manufacturers who, beginning in the mid-1970s, flooded the consumer market with dual deck cassette players. Rather, they went to Congress for redress, remedy, and revenue, rather than pursue other avenues toward resolution.

Interestingly and unfortunately, students have been MIA in the public discussions (or public posturing) about illegal P2P on campus networks. Yes, several surveys of full-time undergraduates confirm that students are in many ways ambivalent, apathetic, or uninformed about copyright and P2P issues. They have come of age with VCRs and TIVO and see little difference between recording a television program and downloading music. This has left college officials in the difficult position of condemning illegal P2P activity on campus networks, while arguing that their institutions should not be required to police this activity or provide the names of students allegedly engaging in illegal P2P downloading.

Students should get involved in this issue. If they are unhappy about the RIAA and MPAA lobbying efforts which would lead to Congressional mandates that could result in increased tuition because of the pass-through costs of subscription services and “technology-based deterrents” intended to stem illegal P2P, they can vote with their wallets. For example, what if students deferred their rush to the multiplex when new movies open each weekend? As it happens, the split in box office revenue between studios/distributors and local exhibitors (the companies that manage the multiplex in the mall) shift over time: distributors/film studios get more of the up-front money (i.e., during the first weeks of a release). So if students deferred their rush to the box office from the opening weekend to the third week, the net revenue (box office) might be the same over time, but they could affect the revenue that goes to the studios.

Illegal P2P downloading is a messy issue. But the swiftboating efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to portray college students as the primary source of digital piracy will not resolve this problem, in either the campus or the consumer markets. Neither will federal mandates that ultimately will mean pass-through costs for students. The long-term solution lies in an aggressive mix of user education and new market models for digital content. The MPAA’s and RIAA’s efforts to secure remedy in the courts and Congress will neither provide resolution nor generate revenue in the market place.


Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project and a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University.


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