The Senate and House have voted to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and approved controversial new provisions that will require universities to provide students with access to commercial music downloading services and implement traffic filtering technologies in order to deter peer-to-peer filesharing. The bill now goes to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law.
These provisions have strong support from the content industry, but have been targeted with widespread criticism from the academic community and advocacy groups such as Educause. The push for mandatory filtering at universities began in 2007 when the RIAA published a list of top piracy schools and the MPAA claimed that piracy on university campuses accounts for 44 percent of the movie industry's annual losses to piracy. The group later retracted this claim when it was discovered that the numbers were grossly inflated. The RIAA followed up its top piracy school list with a litigation and propaganda campaign which included the development of a web site to handle automated settlements, but soon faced serious setbacks in court.
The MPAA also developed an Ubuntu-based software toolkit for detecting file-sharing on university networks, but was forced to discontinue distribution of the software when they were hit with a Digital Millenium Copyright Act takedown notice. The MPAA had violated copyright law by failing to adhere to the General Public License under which Ubuntu is distributed.
The MPAA's high-tech anti-piracy solution
The RIAA and MPAA have vigorously lobbied for a legislative solution at both the state and federal levels. Pressure from the content industry compelled Congress to begin investigating the issue.
The lobbying efforts eventually resulted in the addition of anti-piracy provisions in the College Opportunity and Affordability Act in the House, which passed by a wide margin in February. The Senate version of this bill passed today with bipartisan support.
A statement issued by the joint House and Senate committees responsible for harmonizing the two versions of the bill explains that universities will have to begin authoring formal piracy deterrence plans. The statement also recommends several commercial anti-P2P technologies including Audible Magic's CopySense Network Appliance and Red Lambda's Integrity filtering tool.
"[The amendment includes] language requiring institutions to make available the development of plans to detect and prevent unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material on the institution of higher education's information technology system," the statement says. "The Conferees have combined elements from both bills to require institutions to advise students about this issue and to certify that all institutions have plans to combat and reduce illegal peer to peer file sharing."
The MPAA hailed the bill's passage. "We work closely with leaders in the higher education community because we both have a stake in ensuring that intellectual property continues to be a strong, vibrant part of our nation's economy," said MPAA president Dan Glickman. "By including these important provisions in the Higher Education Act, Congress is sending a strong message that intellectual property is worth protecting."
The MPAA will shortly begin sending out what it describes as "campus briefing books" that contain information on the anti-piracy provisions of the new law and what schools need to do in order to be in compliance. The books will also offer hints on how to clamp down on P2P traffic and detect infringement.
There are presently no penalties for failing to comply with the requirement, but Educause and many in the academic community fear that the new provisions are a trojan horse that will open the door for Congress to add penalties in future iterations. If this happens, universities could potentially be denied funding if they don't agree to play copyright cop.
Further readingPatry Copyright Blog: Educators Forced to Become MPAA's Cops