WASHINGTON — Colleges and universities that take part in federal financial aid programs will be under new obligations to take steps to prevent illegal downloads of music, movies and other copyrighted material if legislation overwhelmingly passed by the House last month becomes law.
A two-page portion of the 800-page College Opportunity and Affordability Act has raised alarms in the higher- education community. It would hold schools disproportionately responsible, education groups say, for activities that take place mostly off-campus.
"More than 80% of students live off-campus and use commercial networks," not school networks, said Steve Worona, director of policy and networking for Educause, a nonprofit that focuses on information technology in higher education.
Universities go well past the minimum legal requirements to dissuade piracy by requiring students to sign copyright-law notifications, Worona argued, yet the commercial networks where the "vast majority" of illegal downloads occur "do nothing beyond it -- and for some reason we're the ones targeted."
The main purpose of the legislation, which the House approved 354-58, is to make college more affordable to low- and middle-income families.
But the anti-piracy provision could increase student costs, Worona said. It would mandate that schools develop plans to offer alternatives to illegal downloading and to explore technological deterrents.
Worona called the mandate "expensive, ineffective, inappropriate and unnecessary" and expressed concern that schools could be penalized for failing to come up with such plans.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) had intended to introduce an amendment that no school failing to devise plans "shall be denied or given reduced federal funding," but after tornadoes struck his state he returned to his district to deal with the aftermath -- and missed a key procedural vote to attach his language to the bill.
Educational institutions' arguments don't sway representatives of the artists who receive no royalties from illegal file-sharing.
"Piracy hurts ordinary working musicians, but it also will hurt our nation's culture and its music fans if enough talented and hard-working musicians cannot survive in the business," American Federation of Musicians President Thomas F. Lee said in a letter to the House Committee on Education and Labor in support of the provision.
The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which also supports the measure, in earlier congressional testimony cited a 2005 study to claim that 44%, or about $572 million, of industry losses came from students using college networks. But in late January the MPAA, acknowledging "human error," lowed the proportion to 15%, or about $195 million.
"I have no doubt that the exceptional size of this [initial] number contributed significantly to the sense of urgency in dealing with college students," Educause Vice President Mark Luker said in an interview. Even 15% is too high, he said: Adjusting for the fact that most students are off-campus, he considered 3% a more reasonable estimate.
UCLA's director of strategic policy for information technology, Kent Wada, agreed with Luker's 3% estimate, adding: "Consider also that we see the behavior and values associated with illegal file-sharing already largely developed by the time students arrive at college."
Research by USC's John Heidemann, an Information Sciences Institute associate professor, bore out their estimates. After hearing the MPAA's initial claim, he monitored file-sharing on USC's network for 14 hours and found 3% to 13% of users using peer-to-peer technology. (USC was among only a few schools to conduct research and not rely solely on the MPAA's numbers.)
The Recording Industry Assn. of America, which also supports the bill, has subpoenaed numerous universities in recent years over piracy issues, asking schools to identify students who were illegally distributing songs onto file-sharing networks.
But in the last few months, several universities have fought back.
In the most prominent case, the University of Oregon moved in November to have a subpoena dismissed. The school accused the industry of misleading the judge, violating students' privacy rights and engaging in questionable investigative practices.
The latter charge involves MediaSentry, an Internet service used by the RIAA to obtain user information from file-sharing networks. Some states, including Oregon, require private investigators to have a license, which MediaSentry lacks.
The RIAA says MediaSentry isn't a private investigator.
The case is pending.
According to Luker, all universities have explicit policies against copyright infringement on campus networks that students must sign each year. And "quite a few" schools, he said, have sponsored subscriptions to legal downloading services such as Napster or the Ruckus Network, with the cost passed on to students.