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.