Undergraduates Are Promiscuous File-Sharers

Last night I was part of a panel that spoke to undergraduates in Hecht Residential College on “Online File Sharing”. The audience was largely divided between the defiant and the possessors of guilty consciences. My suggestion that the RIAA attempts to stamp out file sharing by suing everyone in sight was likely to be as pleasant and as successful as the War on Drugs produced surprisingly little reaction.

I enjoyed meeting fellow panelist Sam Terilli, who told me he had accepted a full-time teaching job at the School of Communications, a school which just gets better and better ever year. It will be fun to have him just across the street.

But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was this statistic, offered by a speaker from the University's IT department. Two years ago, network traffic was 80% incoming, 20% outgoing. Last year it was 20% incoming and 80% outgoing—and the difference was due to people making files available for P2P file sharing. As a result the university closed down the ports most commonly used by Kazaa and other popular file-sharing tools, and the balance is almost back to normal.

The second most interesting thing I learned—and certainly the most disturbing—came up before the official start of the event: my host, the very gracious Master of Hecht (what a great title! but it does make me think of Phil from Dilbert), is that the University's General Counsel has forbidden the Masters of residential colleges from renting films and showing them to students AND also from buying films and making them available in a lending library.

I can understand why a prudent General Counsel might impose the first rule—in a 900-person dorm, it's arguably a public display of a video under 17 USC § 101 even in a small room, in which case it would require a license—but the second rule mystifies me. I'm not a copyright scholar, but the statute seems pretty clear.

Here's the statute, 17 USC § 109 (b)(1)(A):

Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a), unless authorized by the owners of copyright in the sound recording or the owner of copyright in a computer program (including any tape, disk, or other medium embodying such program), and in the case of a sound recording in the musical works embodied therein, neither the owner of a particular phonorecord nor any person in possession of a particular copy of a computer program (including any tape, disk, or other medium embodying such program), may, for the purposes of direct or indirect commercial advantage, dispose of, or authorize the disposal of, the possession of that phonorecord or computer program (including any tape, disk, or other medium embodying such program) by rental, lease, or lending, or by any other act or practice in the nature of rental, lease, or lending. Nothing in the preceding sentence shall apply to the rental, lease, or lending of a phonorecord for nonprofit purposes by a nonprofit library or nonprofit educational institution. The transfer of possession of a lawfully made copy of a computer program by a nonprofit educational institution to another nonprofit educational institution or to faculty, staff, and students does not constitute rental, lease, or lending for direct or indirect commercial purposes under this subsection.

If it's true that the General Counsel's office is advising otherwise, I'd like to know why. Is it out of some overblown fear of contributory copyright infringement based on the belief that our students all have DVD burners? Or is it just plain wrong?

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