Act Would Require Colleges To Deter Illegal Downloading

A Congressional committee has unanimously approved a controversial bill that aims to curb piracy on college campuses despite opposition by civil rights groups.

The 747-page measure, the Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (H.R. 4137), contains a section requiring colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to explore "technology-based deterrents" to illegal downloading.

The entertainment industry backs the bill, which was approved late last week by the House Education and Labor Committee.

But advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge say that the measure isn't necessary and could lead to censorship.

"You're asking schools to spend their students' tuition, not on the business of learning, but on the business of preserving the business models* of the recording industry and Hollywood," argues Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge.

Further, she says, technology that purports to weed out copyrighted material is both under- and over-inclusive. "Filters catch things that shouldn't be filtered, like fair uses, and they don't catch things that should be filtered," she says.

The EFF likewise charges that plans to use technology to block pirated material could result in the blocking of legitimate material. "What happens when a filter mistakenly prevents a student from downloading or uploading a licensed work, or a work to be lawfully used under fair use?" the organization asks in a page urging people to oppose the bill.

The act also requires colleges to come up with a plan for offering lawful alternatives to piracy. This clause is seen as encouraging colleges to forge deals with music subscription services like Napster. But Napster is incompatible with iPods--which limits its appeal on campuses even when available to students for free.

The Senate earlier this year considered, but ultimately rejected, legislation that would have required colleges to use technology to prevent illegal downloading. Instead, the Senate approved an amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act that only requires campuses to tell students not to violate copyright and the steps being taken to prevent piracy.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act is just one anti-piracy measure under consideration in Washington. The Senate also is considering The Intellectual Property Enforcement Act of 2007, which would authorize the Department of Justice to pursue civil lawsuits against unauthorized file-sharers.

*Note: Story was amended after publication.

Tags: legal
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