Monday, March 12, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Phone Cops

A West Coast correspondent writes:

I wondered what you thought of the statement USC made about the
purpose of universities, in the context of complaints form the music
industry about possible illegal copyright violations committed by its

"As an academic institution, USC's purpose is to promote and foster
the creation and lawful use of intellectual property. It is
antithetical to this purpose for USC to play any part, even
inadvertently, in the violation of the intellectual property rights of
others. "

it comes from a letter Cory doctorow re-posted here

The letter was just reposted recently, although it was originally sent
(in this version) last year.

I feel about it similar to what I did about the INS asking state
university employees to inform on the immigration status of their
students, with the additional issue that the legal issue here is even
less clearcut. I'm going to blog about the reasons why the current
wave of threatening letters from the RIAA to students is both in very
bad faith and possibly a violation of due process. (I'd also love to
know how your institution, from the admin side, looks at these kinds
of issues - is it purely defensive, or is there a consideration of the
rights of teachers and students?).

I wish there had been or could be a public statement by other
universities distancing themselves from this.. probably a pipe dream,
and there are probably a host of public statements released by
universities about what they are for.. but still it seems a bad omen
to embed universities in tracking and enforcement of law at all let
alone dodgy, industry-designed interpretations of law.

I'm not a lawyer. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

A little while back my cc got a very threatening letter from a coven of attorneys (I think that's the correct term) warning us that they held the copyright on streaming video, and that they were aware that we used streaming video for some of our online courses. For the low, low fee of $10k (later lowered to 5k), they promised to issue us a license for it. After some internal discussion, we decided to relegate the letter to the circular file and take our chances. So far, so good.

The whole episode reminds me of an old episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, in which somebody broke a phone and Johnny Fever got paranoid that the Phone Cops were going to get him. (For younger readers to whom the joke is opaque, there was once a single phone company, called Ma Bell. It engaged in all the arrogant monopolistic practices that arrogant monopolies are famous for. When WKRP was still being produced, Ma Bell was still in force. You couldn't even own your phone; you rented it monthly from the phone company! It wasn't that great a leap to imagine that Ma Bell had her own police.)

The Phone Cops have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Now colleges are supposed to be the Music Cops.

I first felt the copyright clampdown in the early 90's, when I was a lowly teaching assistant for The Great Bloviator. TGB assembled a photocopy packet of readings for the students, which he had printed and bound at a local copy shop (as was the practice at the time). One of the readings was a chapter from one of TGB's very own books. The section where that chapter was supposed to be was replaced by a single page, announcing that they couldn't get copyright permission from the author. To me, that just summarized TGB. But it turned out to be part of the Great Kinko's Klampdown, in which 'fair use' of readings was redefined to be much narrower than most of us had previously understood.

In the wake of Napster, Kazaa, BitTorrent, and the rest, of course, the Kinko's Klampdown is small potatoes. The real litigation now is to be found in the world of digital copying, since copying there is so much cheaper, faster, and easier, and the technology gets better all the time. To the extent that colleges provide internet access to our students, we are suddenly – at least potentially – on the hook for whatever creative new ways young people with time and technology, but without money, find to game the system.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Our IT staffs are swamped now just trying to keep up with the constant changes in operating systems, web platforms for distance ed courses, podcasting, viruses, and the like. If they start monitoring everybody's internet use, the cost in money and manpower would be staggering. From an administrative perspective, this is a colossal nightmare, since it's no-win. There's really nothing in it for us, since it's not at all central to our mission, and we don't get a cut, so I'd expect to see some serious foot-dragging. Were I the local guru of IT, I'd put this about 379th on my list of priorities.

Instead, I'd probably take a twofold approach:

  1. Get out of the ISP business. I don't know why so many colleges and universities continue to act as ISP's. Reimburse employees for home connections, and maintain a campus network, but for heaven's sake, don't try to provide service to the folks at home. If ever a service were a candidate for 'outsourcing,' this is. If Sally Student uses her Earthlink account for nefarious purposes, then the fact that she's a student is irrelevant. Don't take on liabilities you aren't even vaguely prepared to handle. (I'd even advocate doing this for dorms. Let Earthlink, or whomever, provide internet service for the dorms. Make it their problem.)

  2. Post some sort of checkoff box at each computer in the labs, stating that inappropriate use (however defined) is a violation of (whatever). Require the user to acknowledge the policy as a condition of using the computer. (The same might apply to a web platform for a distance learning course.)

It would also be reasonable to hold public forums on 'fair use' and copyright law, and I'd certainly comply with valid legal search warrants. But to just start threatening students willy-nilly on behalf of a civil tort – not a criminal offense – that does not affect the college directly strikes me as absurd. When students plagiarize published sources in research papers, we don't compensate the authors financially, since it would be missing the point to do so. If someone has a case to bring, let them bring it. But don't make college IT staffs the Music Cops.

The precedent would be as disturbing as the act itself. Should we monitor email for offensive content? Should we enforce local 'anti-fornication' laws in the dorms? (At least we're spared that one, by virtue of lacking dorms.) What if some kid rips a tag off his mattress? And don't even get me started on the 21 drinking age.

Colleges are not law enforcement agencies, and should not be expected to be. We have enough on our plates as it is. Let the police do their jobs, and let us do ours.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.