Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Napster University?

According to IHE, the latest proposed extension of the Higher Education Act contains, among other things, a provision requiring that colleges and universities “develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.”


As near as I can figure, this means something like providing mandatory subscriptions to Napster and Netflix, presumably paid for by student fees. The logic seems to be that everybody knows that colleges are hotbeds of copyright violation, so it makes sense to require them to effectively tax their students individually for what amounts to restitution for the torts that we just know they – as a class – commit.

Of course, student fees are eligible for federal financial aid, so your tax dollars will go to help offset the fees charged to students to pay the studios for the music and movies that they download.

(This, in the context of a bill that otherwise tries to address the increasing cost of college. Bizarre.)

So my taxes will go to subsidize the student loan to cover the fee that allows Johnny Tasteless to download “My Humps” to his ipod. But funding for stem cell research? Now that's inappropriate!

I'm glad we have our priorities straight.

This is silly on so many levels I almost don't know where to begin.

I'll start with the obvious: it won't work. Most of the subscription-based music services use some kind of DRM software to make the music self-destruct if you don't keep paying the fee; in many cases, it also prevents burning to cd's. (Most of them also don't work with ipods – students would have to buy other mp3 players compatible with whatever service the college chooses.) Emusic is an exception, but it restricts itself to indie labels and puts strict monthly limits on how much you can download. Of course, students could get around those limits by peer-to-peer file sharing, but that defeats the purpose. Itunes has de-encrypted some of its music, but it still charges for each song a la carte, so a subscription model would be a radical departure.

On the next level up, there's the basic, incontrovertible fact that some students don't steal music. Under this law, they will be forced to subsidize those who (currently) do. The moral principle here eludes me.

Above that, there's the basic, incontrovertible fact that college costs have been increasing faster than inflation, putting a real squeeze on middle-class families. Adding mandatory Napster fees would simply make the cost spiral worse. As a percentage of tuition, mandatory Napster fees would be highest at the lowest-tuition colleges, and lowest at the highest-tuition colleges. It would be a mandatory regressive transfer payment, which pretty much epitomizes a Bad Idea.

Then there's the idea of mandatory extracurricular content. Imagine telling, say, a conservative Christian college that it must, as a matter of law, provide the means for students to download Marilyn Manson for free. This has “First Amendment Quagmire” written all over it.

From a college-infrastructure standpoint, this is a nightmare. If a student drops out, or drops to part-time status, does the college have to notify Napster? And who pays for the monumental increases in bandwidth to supply the demand unleashed when “all you can eat” is actually legal? If you sign up for a six-week summer course, do you get a six-week subscription? And was this really the idea behind Pell grants?

This was obviously a patronage-driven payoff to the recording industry. It has nothing to do with higher education as such, and it's a pretty radical departure from historical practice. (Does the publisher get a royalty every time a book is checked out from the public library?) But the state of our politics now is such that I have no confidence that an absurdity won't become law, especially if there's money behind it.

Call me a traditionalist, but I'd rather spend public aid to higher education on scientific research and faculty and libraries and tutoring and daycare and textbooks than on Napster. If Britney wants to sue someone for stealing her music, let her. I have my own work to do.

At the school where I am currently a grad students several years ago someone in, I think student government, brokered a deal and rolled out a "1 year of Yahoo Music free" for all the students (free to listen, you had to pay for a download). This was back when iPods were just starting to become ubiquitous. I believe that yahoo music was only popular with a particular subset of undergrads, but on the whole, was not that well recieved among the grad population given we were busy using our computers for other purposes (and many grads i know tend to only be able to listen to music while walking to and from class or in the car).
Given that at research universities the grad students may outnumber the undergrads, I think there would be a lot of vocal protest for paying to subsidize such a program
To my, this sound right like an 'Educational Decree # xyz' by Dolores Umbridge.
The lengths and depths to which major media industries go to protect copyright and income streams has gone well into the absurd. They have so much money that they can create ridiculous laws and afford the lawyers to prop them up.

Here's where the glacial nature of higher education may help. The provision only requires a plan. Ooookay. Let's see, that'll take how many years? Then will come the enactment of the plan, which will require a slow, phased rollout to ensure its proper use...

With luck, this will be one of those provisions that will either die in committee or be ignored in practice. If it did become widespread practice, I can't imagine it would last under judicial review very long, for the very reasons you mention.

I hope.
geez, when I was at christian college Everclear was the scandalous band. we didn't even get as far as marilyn manson before folks freaked out. so yeah...that's probably going to raise issues.
A plan that would offer an alternative to illegal downloading: "Students should first check the online catalog to determine whether the music they are interested in is included in the university library collection. If not, the student should file an inter-library loan request for the desired item. Students are advised to plan ahead since inter-library loan requests may take several weeks to fulfil.

[copyright 2007 by CoyoteLibrarian]
"patronage-driven payoff"??

Considering that one of the RIAA's expert witnesses has an interest in a company that makes P2P-prevention software... and that licensing this software product seems to make those annoying copyright violation letters go away...
it's brdering on protection money.

My take on this is simple. (Some would say, simplistic, and it wouldn't be the first time.) If somebody is breaking the law, call the police. Throw the book at them. If they're not, get the hell out and leave them alone.

It's beyond me why the fact that the alleged perp is a college student has anything to do with it, or why it seems to be the college's responsibility to do something about it.
Does the publisher get a royalty every time a book is checked out from the public library?

In some countries, the copyright holder does get a royalty on library loans. Eg: http://uk.cbs.dk/bibliotek/cbs_ansatte/biblioteksafgift.

According to the article you referenced, the Act would "Dictate that colleges craft plans for giving their students legal ways to download movie and music, and that institutions explore technologies to stop illegal peer to peer file sharing."

This doesn't sound that onerous, actually. Make certain your undergrads can get to the iTunes Music Store and the new, legal Napster and you've done just that -- given them a legal way to download music. They will need their own account, but if the IHE report is accurate you would only have to provide the way, not the actual material.

There is a bandwidth issue here -- if lots of kids are downloading music/movies it will chew up a lot of bandwidth, but it's a fair assumption that they'd be doing that anyway.

If you try to ban downloading you will end up with the situation in China: a thriving underground scene that no one regards as morally wrong. To hear the movie companies, you'd think that the problem with Chinese piracy is that the Chinese just don't care, but it's just a case of supply and demand. Only a dozen or so foreign films are legally released in China each year, so if people want to watch one of the others they have to watch a pirated edition -- there is no alternative. And once you're used to buying pirate films, spending 1-2 weeks income on a legal DVD seems outrageous*.

Sorry, this response is veering into a polemic on the US media companies. Back to responses to copying.

In Canada, we have a tax on blank CDs and iPods (and other music players). The tax goes into a fund that is distributed every year to artists based on their Canadian sales. The logic is that the more popular artists are being downloaded more, so are losing more sales, and so should get more compensation for lost royalties. This is somewhat unfair, in that every blank CD isn't used to burn downloaded music, and not every music player is full of downloaded music, but it is a much better target group than "all Canadians". As we pay this tax, it isn't illegal in Canada to download music, nor is it illegal to copy CDs for personal use. It is illegal to upload music, or to give someone else a CD you've burned. (You have to lend them the original and let them make the copy themselves.)

I'm not certain how you could implement something like that for people who just download and listen/watch on their computers, except maybe some form of bandwidth tax. I suspect charging for bandwidth is coming anyway, as telcos and ISPs realize that they can't provide unlimited high-speed bandwidth for fixed rates forever. I could argue that it is just as unjust for my mother, who uses her computer once a day to read email and check the weather, to pay the same monthly fee as her neighbour who has three teenagers who are never off the internet. Maybe the college could provide each student with a specific amount of bandwidth, sufficient for normal usage with a generous safety cushion, and they could be charged for extra? After all, back in the old days of shared mainframe access we only had a limited amount of CPU time…

*I've seen Sony DVDs that cost more than a DVD player. Come to that, I've seen Sony charge $30 in Canada for a Chinese DVD that can be bought, legally, in Hong Kong for $10.
From an email I received about this matter... (Educause is the premier organization for academic technology in the US; they do great stuff)

Sent: Saturday, November 10, 2007 1:27 PM
Subject: EDUCAUSE Urgent Request


Leaders of the House Committee on Education and Labor have just introduced legislation to control illegal file sharing in higher education as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007. The higher education community opposes a provision that requires campuses to develop new institutional plans for addressing infringement activities on their networks.

Please call (do not write or email) the offices of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Time is short. Markup is this coming Wednesday, November 14, at 9:00 AM.

For specific details please see our talking points at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/word/CSD5172.doc.


1. Coordinate your response to this challenge with your institutional executives and federal relations officers.

2. Call, do not write or email, as many of the Committee Members as possible, and express your strong opposition to this proposal. You can find a list of all the Committee members and their phone numbers at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/phone.pdf.

Remember, if your campus representative is a member of this committee, you have special influence. We request that you make every effort to contact their office! When calling, ask for the staff member in charge of higher education and leave a voice mail if necessary. Call back later and try to speak directly with a staff member.

For copies of the relevant legislative language and template responses for your use, please see http://www.educause.edu/p2pfs.

Thank you for your help!

Mark Luker
Vice President


EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. The current membership comprises more than 2,100 colleges, universities, and educational organizations, including 200 corporations, with 16,500 active members. EDUCAUSE has offices in Boulder, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. Learn more at

This is particularly ironic, because one of the policies politicians at the state level are pushing, is standardizing textbook use in introductory courses, so that the same textbook can be used over and over again. They are even seeking to develop rental agreements for textbooks, so that students do not actually have to buy these books. Intellectual property rights for textbook authors, anyone? Of course, they're just academics, not members of the mighty RIAA.
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