Students who are about to graduate often hand down the tricks of stealing music and movies to the next senior class, in a digital rite of passage. At the College of New Jersey, that means surreptitiously finding a new home each year for a computer holding an enormous directory of illegal files on the campus.
So says a senior at the college, who is moving that computer to the dorm room of an underclassman who has agreed to maintain it next year. The machine runs software called Direct Connect, which lets people on a local network easily trade files among their hard drives in a way that is usually undetectable to anyone outside the network. The senior described the system only on the condition of anonymity. The senior estimates that about a third of students on the campus have used the service, grabbing movies, music, or episodes of TV shows.
Regulations drafted by the U.S. Department of Education, which take effect early this summer, outline steps that colleges must take to prevent illegal swapping of copyrighted media. The rules were required by the reauthorized Higher Education Act. But the College of New Jersey, like most others, has established no new polices or prevention methods as a result of the new law, and has no plans to do so.
Those colleges, following the letter of the law, have strong strategic arguments for what they are—or are not—doing. Indeed, in the past colleges have gone well beyond legal requirements in their efforts to limit piracy. So some wonder if the law will have any practical impact, and if entertainment-industry groups will ease up on campuses, which they have long made a target of their antipiracy campaigns.
At New Jersey, compliance with the new rules simply involved creating a Web page listing the many things the institution was already doing: running an educational campaign on the evils of illegal file trading; publishing a list of legal alternatives to piracy; and using a networking tool that limits the amount of large files that can be sent in and out of the campus network.
None of those practices have eliminated underground pirate networks on many campuses. Nadine Stern, vice president for information technology and enrollment services at the college, said that while it would be technically possible for her staff to detect large amounts of file trading on the campus, that is not something they check for. "We've made the decision not to be detectives and not to look for it," she said, after I told her about the tradition of running the illegal-trading hub there. "We don't have the staff to do that, or the inclination—it's not our philosophy."
That may sound careless, but it's actually a strategic move, and one that college leaders believe is the best path to a long-term solution. The goal is to avoid a technological arms race that can drain college coffers to minimal effect. Even if colleges shut down a Direct Connect server today, for example, something new and harder to police would very likely emerge in its place. At least that's the way Martin D. Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed College, explained it to me, comparing illegal file trading to speeding on highways.
"People who say, Get out the technological sledgehammer, are basically saying, Let's put a cop behind every billboard on every highway across the U.S.," he said. "How much would that cost, and how oppressive that would be?"
The amount of speeding is not determined by the number of speed traps set by enthusiastic cops, he said, but by the culture and values of drivers. "You try to get people to understand that it's their own safety that's the driving force."
Industry Wants Action
Some officials of music and movie studios are not convinced by that argument, however. "You should ask those same CIO's if they are not bothering with spam filters because the bad guys keep coming up with new ways to do spam," said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. "There will always be an arms race with anything involving technology and the Internet, but you do what can be done to address the problem in a reasonable way."
Entertainment groups fought to include in the new rules a requirement that colleges use network filters that can detect copyrighted materials and automatically stop transfers of those files. Colleges fought back, arguing that such filters are prohibitively expensive, especially considering the current economic climate.
The resulting compromise requires that colleges create a plan for fighting piracy, but that the plan can use any of several methods. Filters are an option but not a requirement to satisfy the law.
One key disagreement in the debate over how to curb online piracy is whether colleges represent a particularly fertile breeding ground for pirates and therefore need rules of their own.
Groups like the RIAA think so, but college leaders argue that fast Internet connections can now be found everywhere, and so can piracy. Why should colleges get hit with rules that do not apply to commercial Internet companies, which have far more users?
College networks are unique, though. Often they are faster than the networks provided to most homes. And because college students live in such small communities, it is easy for them to spread word of how to take advantage of that blazing-fast network by setting up software like Direct Connect.
For years colleges have gone far beyond any legal requirements to limit online file trading and to mount education campaigns. College orientations often feature skits about the dangers of stealing music online, and officials give out brochures, put up posters, and otherwise spread the word that piracy is wrong. Many officials were frustrated, then, when groups like the RIAA demanded that they do even more.
The landscape is changing, though. In 2008 the RIAA persuaded several major commercial service providers to agree to step up enforcement against routine piracy on their networks. One of them, Verizon Communications, recently began sending warnings to some illegal downloaders, and company officials have said those who repeatedly trade copyrighted files could face loss of service, according to a report on CNET, a technology Web site.
Several major video-sharing services, including YouTube, recently installed filters that automatically detect copyrighted material and prevent it from being posted to the video-sharing sites. When I recently attempted to upload a short video clip from a friend's wedding reception (of guests dancing to Prince's "1999"), YouTube automatically stripped out the audio track, warning me that its filters had detected copyrighted music and removed it.
So colleges may be losing the moral high ground.
"There has to be a rule of law on the Internet," said Richard Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel of NBC Universal, after telling me about all the voluntary steps Internet companies are taking to fight piracy. "It cannot be that the image of the broadband Internet is like Somalia."
To Mr. Cotton, that means filters. "But if a university believes it can create effective measures in other ways," he said, "then that is their prerogative."
Change Some Can Believe In
Both sides insist that the new rules are leading to changes, of course. Sure, listing current antipiracy practices on a Web page, as the rules require, is a modest move. But it can have an impact, various officials argue.
"Campuses are taking it very seriously—they want to understand what they need to do in order to be in compliance," said Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at Educause, a nonprofit group that promotes technology in higher education.
Mr. Sherman, of the RIAA, argued that many colleges took "ad hoc" approaches to the issue before, and that now they must sit down and reassess those policies. "All those schools who thought, 'It's not my problem, and I'm not going to worry about it,' now have a legal reason to be proactive."
Educause recently unveiled a Web site with information about the new regulations. It provides case studies from six "role-model campuses," listing the steps they are taking to combat piracy. Another page lists 57 legal sources of music and movies on the Web.
But when asked which campuses have forged new policies in reaction to the law, Educause officials were unable to name any.
I asked Mr. Sherman whether he was happy with that outcome.
"It's hard to say in advance whether you're happy," he said. "The proof is going to be in the pudding after, not before."
Meanwhile student behavior may be changing for other reasons. The New Jersey student who ran the Direct Connect hub said students are grabbing fewer TV shows than in the past. Now they can get some shows, free, on the Web sites of TV networks.