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MPAA-opposed college piracy amendment vanishes

On the eve of a possible vote, congressman yanks proposal designed to clarify that universities can't lose federal aid for antipiracy shortcomings. It's not clear exactly why.

As the House of Representatives presses ahead with a sweeping higher-education bill that includes new antipiracy obligations for most universities, it now appears it won't be considering an amendment designed to clarify that schools can't lose federal financial aid for failing to fulfill those requirements.

By way of background, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, which is scheduled to be debated by the House starting as soon as Thursday, dictates that universities participating in federal financial-aid programs "shall" devise plans for "alternative" offerings to unlawful downloading--such as subscription-based services--or "technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity."

University officials and fair-use advocates had balked at that requirement, arguing that by their interpretation, they ran the risk of being docked financial aid for their students if they failed to come up with the requisite plans. The bill's sponsors, for their part, have long disputed that interpretation, arguing that devising the antipiracy plans has no bearing whatsoever on a school's financial aid eligibility and that any suggestion otherwise is nothing but a "myth."

Which brings us to the amendment we reported on Wednesday morning. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) had revealed his intention to propose changes (PDF) to the mammoth bill saying no higher-education institution "shall be denied or given reduced federal funding for student loan or other financial-aid programs" because of "noncompliance" with the antipiracy requirements. The Rules Committee had been scheduled to consider at a Wednesday afternoon meeting whether that amendment and others would be allowed for votes on the House floor.

But since then, that amendment has been labeled "withdrawn," according to the House Rules Committee's Web site.

It wasn't immediately clear why. A Cohen spokeswoman didn't have any answers right away, reporting that her boss was currently on a plane. Representatives from both the Education and Rules committees said they had no information.

Perhaps the amendment was withdrawn because the bill's sponsors have steadfastly maintained that despite what university officials have said, the antipiracy obligations are not tied to financial aid eligibility, which would seem to make Cohen's amendment extraneous. There's lingering disagreement on that front from university officials, however, who contend that by their reading of the bill, noncompliance would, indeed, render a school ineligible for financial aid programs.

Another potential explanation is pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America, which told CNET earlier on Wednesday that it saw no need for the Cohen amendment. A few weeks ago, an MPAA executive also suggested he supported linking financial aid to progress in combating piracy.

For the record, Educause, a lobby group that represents college network managers, said the amendment wouldn't have changed its opposition to the bill provision anyway. The fair-use advocacy group Public Knowledge, however, took a slightly rosier view of the proposal, saying it would have taken some of the "sting" out of the current version.

Update at 3:42 p.m. PST: Cohen spokeswoman Marilyn Dillihay said her boss's schedule was complicated by the destructive tornadoes that touched down in his district on Wednesday and suggested the amendment's withdrawal from the Rules Committee list may be related to that occurrence. She said she wasn't sure whether he would offer the same proposal again.