Latest Copyright News: Discussions at Ohio University and Legal Actions at University of Oregon

As the recording industry continues legal and quasi-legal proceedings against college and university students accused of copyright infringement, discussions and legal actions at colleges and universities also continue. A recent forum at Ohio University (video and Chronicle blog discussion) drew some attention although it is unclear if new ideas or initiatives will grow out of this event. The event was 2.5 hours long and I admit that I have not yet watched all of the video. (So far, I am unimpressed by the statements made by the songwriters invited to speak at this even; their view of copyright is limited and not legally sound and their view of our historical relationship with copyright is rose-colored and unrealistic).

The Chronicle’s Wired blog’s article about this event notes that “Stewart Harris, president of Edisto Sound, bemoaned the fact that some college students in the crowd shook their heads when he referred to copyright infringement as ‘stealing.'” I have been consistent in criticizing the use of the word “stealing” when discussing copyright infringement. I make this criticism on both intellectual and ethical grounds. Intellectually, copyright infringement is simply too different from theft for it to be an accurate and equivalent comparison. More strongly, I believe that most who intentionally make this equivocation know that these activities differ; they make the comparison not as an accurate legal or technical description but to make a moral or ethical statement. Just as labeling large scale copyright infringement “piracy” invokes images of theft and bloodshed, conflating copyright infringement with theft invokes imagery that miscasts college students in their residence hall rooms as thugs using force to physically take things from people. We can and should discuss the pressing issues of copyright and the shifting meaning of property without intentionally miscasting some of the players or lying.

In an article published on the same day as the forum at Ohio University, the student newspaper The Post reported that the institution pays about $76,000 each year for its technological solution, AudibleMagic. As with the forum, the Chronicle’s Wired blog also discussed this item. The Chronicle’s post was entitled “The Cost of Copyright Compliance” but I assert that the quoted figure of $76,000 (“$60,000 [for] software and hardware…and…$16,000 for support, maintenance and regular database updates”) does not capture the full cost of dealing with allegations of copyright infringement by on-campus Ohio University residents. The only significant study analyzing these costs has been performed by Illinois State University as part of their Digital Citizen Project. Their study, limited to one institution at one period of time, found their costs to be $76 for first offenses and $146 for second/critical offenses. Those figures include staff time, computer systems, materials, and for second/critical offenses, student judicial proceedings.

During the Ohio University forum, several speakers noted that the moral and ethical tone and actions of the recording industry are playing a large role in the discussions and reactions of college students and others. That issue is brought up again by some of those responding to the Chronicle’s request for interview questions for Cary H. Sherman, President of the Recording Industry Association of America. I won’t repeat their questions here; read them for yourself.

Moving on from the Ohio University forum, we come to the Oregon Department of Justice’s motion to quash the RIAA’s subpoena of seventeen University of Oregon students. For the legal details of this motion, including links to the motion itself, I refer you to Ray Beckerman’s blog. In brief, this motion is recognition by the State Attorney General that the arguments made by many on the receiving end of these subpeonas – we often can’t positively identify the alleged infringer – are correct and legally significant. Moreover, the motion asserts that the university should be able to ask the RIAA for more information before students are served subpoenas in which they have not been properly identified.

Also superficially separate from the Ohio University: For a discussion of evolving copyright issues related to technology and corporations but not directly involving academia, check out this post by Mike Madison. Don’t miss the reply from Siva Vaidhyanathan, a noted cultural historian and media scholar. While that particular discussion begins with YouTube and Google’s book scanning project, the larger issue of “are corporations evil?” is directly related to the ethical, moral, and legal issues related to the RIAA and their actions.

Finally, I haven’t yet mentioned that the RIAA won their first lawsuit against someone accused of peer-to-peer copyright infringement. Many others have already written about and discussed this event so I won’t waste your time by repeating it all here. To me, the most interesting aspect of this case is that the judge allowed the jury to consider the mere making of material available equivalent to actual copyright infringement. The defendant plans to appeal the ruling and this particular aspect of the case may be key in the appeal; it’s certainly high on the list for the EFF as they plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief. As an aside, Wired’s continuing coverage of the RIAA is both very one-sided and amusing (for those who happen to be on the same side, of course) as well as being informative and interesting.

Update: Ah, I knew I was forgetting to add something to this post!  In September, American University’s Center for Social Media published a study entitled “The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy;” the study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  The researchers interviewed teachers, professors and other educators and highlights the misunderstandings of copyright and fair use even among those who should know about them (the sample seems to include a lot of media specialists).  This study seems to support the statement I made in the first paragraph when I criticized some of the participants in the Ohio University making unrealistic assumptions about how others view and relate to copyright.