November 29, 2007
Glory be, the big copyright owners have found yet another way to threaten students’ access to education–this time by going for the biggest support of higher education–federal funding.
On Nov 22 the House Education and Labor Committee approved H.R. 4137, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (COAA). The name sounds like something everyone can support–but the devil is truly in the details.
Page 411 of this 747-page bill is “Section 494(A): CAMPUS-BASED DIGITAL THEFT PREVENTION” wherein the bill’s meaning takes a serious detour from its title. To prevent college students from illegally accessing copyrighted material, the section says all schools shall (when you see the word “shall” in a law, it’s a requirement, not a suggestion):
1) Have “a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property”
2) Have “a plan to explore technology based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”
The craziest thing about this is that noncompliant schools would lose all their federal funding, for all their students. No more Pell Grants. No more federal financial aid. No more student loans. This is not just draconian punishment for students who break the law, this punishes all students at that institution even if they did nothing!
Beyond that, both requirements actually work against the point of the bill itself–implementation would likely raise school fees.
If a school requires students to sign up with an “alternative system,” this means (for now) a for-profit company. Who pays for the subscription? And if a school has to use filtering software, who’s going to pay for that? If schools have to prove compliance, they will have to make it mandatory–folding it into school fees is the simplest way. How does that contribute to “Affordability?”
There’s no good reason for fee hikes because the requirements could never solve the “problem.” Let’s back up: what’s the problem and why are schools being forced to solve it?
If the problem is illegal (and there is legal) downloading and uploading and its effect on the industry, why are colleges being required to stop it? The RIAA and the MPAA often state that college networks are major sites of infringement–but their own numbers don’t back that up. The MPAA’s own estimation is that 18.4 percent of copyright infringers overall are college students, who are responsible for 44 percent of lost revenue from copyright infringement.
Calculating “lost revenue” is tricky–how to calculate what would have been paid if someone hadn’t downloaded a song? What if it made them buy an album, or merchandise? What if downloading was easier than ripping a paid-for CD, LP or cassette?