Three recent items related to the issues of copyright, fair use, and how colleges and universities deal with and relate to those issues have appeared lately.
The first item is a revision of a white paper released in 2003 entitled “Background Discussion of Copyright Law and Potential Liability for Students Engaged in P2P File Sharing on University Networks.” This paper is a work of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities; other works by this group, including related congressional testimony, can be found on the American Association of Universities website; materials related to the technology task force are hosted by EDUCAUSE. The white paper is a 20 page document summarizing copyright and potential student and institutional liability for student copyright infringement. It’s a pretty good summary of a pretty dense, complex, and (for most people) uninteresting topic. Despite InsideHigherEd’s headline labeling this paper as one about “File Sharing” it actually focuses more on the possible effects of illicit file sharing than on the technology or other issues. What the paper does not do, except for one brief section at the very end, is give concrete policy guidance to colleges and universities on how to confront this challenge. I don’t necessarily fault the task force for not tackling that in this paper; it’s not the purpose of this paper (but it is the purpose of this paper). Further, it’s a pretty complex topic with little research underlying and supporting or refuting the possible solutions. Unfortunately, I don’t think many people want to hear that “it’s hard;” they want answers and concrete recommendations. This is especially true of our legislators.
Speaking of legislators: since the Democrats will control the next session of Congress they will be in charge of all of the committees and subcommittees. Of particular interest is the leadership and composition of the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property. The Democrats offer leadership to committees by seniority. So Howard Berman, representative of California’s 28 district, will have right of first refusal. As perhaps befitting one who represents many who work in or close to the film industry, he is a strong proponent of strong copyright laws and the rights of copyright holders. If he were to become chair of this subcommittee, the one that has taken the most interest in how universities and colleges respond to this challenge, I do not think he would be sympathetic. As our institutions are by nature slow to change, generally respectful of students’ rights and privacy (how many times have we told one another that “en loco parentis is dead!” ?), and extremely independent, we could be putting ourselves into a bad position with Rep. Berman as these traditional strengths could be viewed as resistance and refusal to act.
Finally, Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, wrote a brief opinion piece for CNET News about the Consumer Electronics Association and other groups’ recently-announced “Digital Freedom” campaign. The title of the piece (“The farce behind ‘Digital Freedom’”) may have given some readers and those-who-don’t-want-to-read-a-Carey-piece a mistaken impression. I agree that Sherman’s organization has done and continues to do a lot of things wrong and significant and lasting damage to America through their actions and stances related to copyright. But his point in this particular article is completely valid: we, consumers and citizens, should be as cautious of those for-profit (and even the not-for-profit) organizations who wave the “Fair Use Banner” as we are of the large copyright holders. The “Digital Freedom” campaign is likely as much or more about meeting the financial needs of its members and sponsors as it is about protecting our rights. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is much too simplistic and naive to live by in real life, much less in politics.