File-sharing students fight copyright constraints

An organization sprouting up on college campuses advocates loosening restrictions of copyright law so information can be freely shared.

When Zachary McCune, a student at Brown, received an e-mail message from the university telling him he might have broken the law by downloading copyrighted songs, his eyes glazed over the warning and he quickly forgot about it. "I already knew what they'd say about file-sharing," he said. "It's become a campus cliche."

But the next day, he realized the message had an attachment from the , a trade group that is coordinating legal efforts by record companies to crack down on Internet piracy. The attachment told McCune he faced a lawsuit with potential fines of $750 to $150,000 for every illegally downloaded song.

"I was stunned by for taking songs I could have bought for a few cents," he said. "It seemed grossly out of proportion."

Twelve Brown students received these letters; McCune ended up paying $3,000 to settle the claim. But the experience made him interested in changing intellectual property regulations. Last spring he co-founded Brown's chapter of Students for Free Culture, a national organization sprouting up on college campuses that advocates loosening the restrictions of copyright law so that information--from software to music to research to art--can be freely shared.

"The technology has outpaced the law," said McCune, who is now a sophomore.

Established at Swarthmore College in 2004, the group has chapters at more than 35 universities across the country. "We will listen to free music, look at free art, watch free film and read free books," reads its manifesto, posted on its Web site, freeculture.org. "We refuse to accept a future of digital feudalism."

Members assert that the Internet has made it necessary to rethink copyright law, and they talk about the group's goals with something like the reverence that earlier generations displayed in talking about social or racial equality.

"People wonder why college students aren't rallying more around the Iraq war," McCune said. "If there were a draft, we probably would be. Students are so quick to fight for this cause because we're the ones bearing the burden."

Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the popular technology blog Boing Boing, said the recording industry lawsuits were not "scaring students away from file-sharing, but scaring them into political consciousness." Last year, Doctorow was an adviser to the Students for Free Culture chapter at the University of Southern California while teaching a course on the history of copyright law.

Opposition to the music industry and its efforts to protect copyrights often dominates discussions on campuses. Chapters have organized demonstrations in front of major record stores and held "iPod liberation" parties where students have downloaded software together that makes it possible to swap songs.

Talking the talk
Many chapters have held forums to discuss legal decisions and developments in copyright, frequently debating what it means to "steal" something as amorphous as a digital file.

But in recent months, the group has made a point of branching out beyond music copyrights. At its first national conference, held at Harvard in May and attended by more than 130 people, speakers gave presentations on topics like enhancing Internet access in impoverished countries, and loosening patent regulations for pharmaceutical drugs.

"File-sharing may have brought these issues to public consciousness, but it's not our only inspiration," said Elizabeth Stark, founder of Harvard's Free Culture group.

Some chapters have rallied around the Federal Research Public Access Act, a bill that would make it mandatory for government-financed research to be published in online journals, free to the public.

The movement is not without its critics. Early on, Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said the group should pick more consequential problems to rally around than access to music.

"Part of what's so tricky about this movement is trying to pry apart access to entertainment from some of the more serious issues, like access to medicine," he said. "The movement does itself a disservice by blending all the issues together."

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