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Universities win Senate fight over anti-P2P proposal

Sen. Harry Reid rewrites legislation that would have prompted colleges to use technology to "prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property." The revised version just asks them to tell their students not to do so.

Updated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has withdrawn anti-file sharing legislation that had drawn yowls of protest from universities this week.

Reid, without explanation, on Monday nixed his own amendment that would have required colleges and universities--in exchange for federal funding--to use technology to "prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property."

Instead, Reid replaced it with a diluted version merely instructing higher ed institutions to advise their students not to commit copyright infringement and tell students what actions they're taking to prevent "unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material" through campus networks. The revised version was tacked onto the Higher Education Reauthorization Act on Tuesday, a Reid spokesman said in a telephone conversation, which the Senate then approved by a 95-0 vote.

The original version, which had more teeth, alarmed lobbyists for universities, which tend to be delighted to accept federal largesse but rather dislike the government placing conditions on the cash.

Even worse, in their opinion, must have been the additional requirement (also now deleted) that the Department of Education annually identify the 25 colleges and universities receiving the "highest number of written" complaints from copyright owners.

Educause, a group that represents universities and related organizations, sent out an "URGENT CALL TO ACTION" on Friday that called Reid's original amendment "yet another attempt by the federal government to dictate the day-to-day operations of colleges and universities." It urged recipients to phone Congress immediately "and tell them how much higher education opposes this amendment."

It's unclear why the senator yanked his original anti-P2P amendment on Monday evening, but the most obvious explanation is that the last-minute pressure worked.

What's a little odd is that Reid offered a third version of the amendment earlier in the week. It said the Department of Education "shall not find any of the 25 institutions of higher be ineligible for continued participation in a program authorized under this subchapter because of failure to comply with this section."

Translation: Universities could ignore the requirements of creating "a technology-based deterrent to prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property" without suffering any financial consequences. The only downside would be the potential for bad publicity, but even that appeared to prove worrisome enough.

The final version amends existing federal law that already deluges students with piles of paperwork they already never read on topics like faculty listings, special facilities for the handicapped, accreditation information, graduation rate statistics, campus crime reports, and so on. Now the piracy information will be added to the stack. ("Information required by this section shall be produced and be made readily available upon request, through appropriate publications, mailings, and electronic media, to an enrolled student and to any prospective student.")

We should note that by "final," in true Washington fashion, we don't actually mean final. It may be final at the moment, but because the broader bill includes controversial components like $17 billion more on taxpayer-subsizied student loans and debt forgiveness, it may not necessarily become law. The House of Representatives has approved a different version of the law, and the Bush administration has said either version could amount to an unacceptable increase in spending.

Still, the Motion Picture Association of America seems to have decided that even the diluted final amendment is better than the current state of the law, and put a good face on the outcome. In a press release on Tuesday afternoon, the MPAA called the Senate vote a "major step" to combat piracy on campus, and included its estimate that movie piracy among students accounts for "more than half a billion dollars loss to the U.S. industry annually."