Mixed reviews for illegal file-sharing on campus

Congress passes the Higher Education Act 2008 with provisions that require universities and colleges to deter illegal file-sharing. A tech-education group doesn't like it, but Hollywood does.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read

Newly reauthorized legislation will ask U.S. universities to deter students from illegal file-sharing, a controversial provision that has drawn concern from educators and praise from copyright holders.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass the Higher Education Act 2008 (H.R. 4137), a law first established in 1965 to govern the nation's universities. Despite its five-year reauthorization schedule, the law hadn't been reapproved by Congress for 10 years, or about the same time it's taken the Internet to pervade college campuses nationwide. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation in the coming weeks.

Among its new provisions are rules asking universities and colleges to develop "plans to effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material, including through the use of a variety of technology-based deterrents." And to "the extent practicable," offer students legal alternatives for peer-to-peer file sharing as "determined by the institution in consultation with the chief technology officer," according to the act.

The provisions initially drew concern from educators because, if universities and colleges don't comply, they could risk losing federal aid grant funding. The nonprofit tech-and-education advocacy group Educause also said this week that the provision could put too high of a burden on universities to develop programs that would meet the law's potentially nebulous standard.

These provisions require "each institution to carefully interpret the legislation's language in deciding how to comply," according to a blog post from Educause. The group signed a joint letter from the American Council on Education expressing reservations about the provisions.

Still, a representative from the House Education and Labor Committee said that the law does not require universities to police students, but rather to inform them of their campus policies and the legal implications of downloading and disseminating copyrighted materials. It asks that universities develop a plan for deterring file-sharing, but it does not mandate any specific program. Universities that don't comply with these provisions, including reporting annually on their campus policy to the Department of Education, would be able to appeal a decision on federal funding.

In addition, under the new law, universities would be able to apply for a grant to support the development of a program to stop illegal file-sharing on campus. If signed by the president, the provisions will go into effect for the fall semester.

The Motion Picture Association of America applauded the passage of the act. It plans to start sending information booklets to college campuses outlining ways to comply with the legislation.

"Congress is sending a strong message that intellectual property is worth protecting," MPAA CEO Dan Glickman said in a statement.

Piracy is just one piece of the new Higher Education Act. Overall, the reauthorized legislation seeks to help students deal with rising tuition costs through a number of new provisions, including asking universities to post more information on the Web for students, such as Web calculators that help students accurately assess fees.

Other new additions include provisions for energy-efficient practices and to encourage interest in science and technology. The legislation, for example, includes a grant program for colleges that want to design and implement new green programs.

In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech last year, the law also authorizes a grant program for universities seeking to overhaul their security and emergency warning systems with new technology. Universities could apply for funding from the DOE to create a real-time messaging system, for example.

"In the decade since the Higher Education Act was last reauthorized, our world has changed dramatically--and so have the needs of America's students," said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the House Education and Labor Committee. It "will bring our nation's higher education programs into the 21st century."