More file-sharing madness…

I just got back from the ResNet conference at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. Yes, that’s right: Big Rapids, not Grand Rapids. Apparently, they jumped the gun when they found Big Rapids and ended up finding even bigger rapids.

During these four days of good ol’ Midwestern fun (if I never see Ranch dressing again, it will be too soon), residential networking/computing groups from colleges and universities all over the country (and a couple world-wide) come to learn from each other, have a little fun and network (no pun intended). Last year’s hot topic was bandwidth and was a pre-cursor to this year’s hot topic: file-sharing and copyright law.

Stanford’s been dealing with the file-sharing and copyright game in a variety of ways for a while now, much longer than most universities out there, but at the end of the day, probably takes what one would consider a more “liberal” approach to the entire controversy (Larry Lessig is a Stanford Law professor, after all). It was interesting to see how many universities take such drastic measures when it comes to controlling file-sharing in terms of both bandwidth usage and copyright law. Most schools have bandwidth caps, but mostly because they have limited bandwidth available for the university as a whole and in the end, this slows down the file-sharing phenomenon on their campus. (Stanford has a gigabit backbone and shapes traffic to give priority to certain types of traffic, but does not limit bandwidth.) In terms of copyright, a few schools treat DMCA notices as junk mail, but most take them relatively seriously and try to fulfill the requirements set forth by the DMCA. Specifically, it usually involves passing on a copyright violation notice to a student (since they are usually filed against an IP address) and if the student does not comply (i.e., notify the DMCA agent that he/she stopped sharing the specified file), turn off his/her network connection. Some schools throw in some meeting with the judicial affairs group at their universities and some general education on file-sharing law and copyright.

The interesting thing at the conference was the moral stance many people took on the issue. Yes, it is a pain in the ass to many residential network staff since it takes up a lot of time and energy handling DMCA notices and dealing with students over the matter, but some people were pointing out that it was our duty as university employees to mold, to shape these young people and make sure they realized how wrong, how immoral it was to continue to participate in illegal sharing of copyrighted materials. The interesting thing was that this concept had never really come up among our staff at Stanford– yes, we know it’s technically illegal and that we should not encourage students, or anyone else, to break the law. And while we do realize the responsibility we hold as part of an educational institution to not only facilitate learning, but also to shape character, we do not consider ourselves parents or police. And specifically when it comes to file-sharing, many of us feel that file-sharing, outside of the legal issues, is not “immoral.”

I think most students feel the same way. I think if we started giving them lectures of the “moral” and “ethical” issues of file-sharing and copyright law, students would start calling the university a bunch of fascists. Just look at what happened with the alcohol policy.

Much mainstream media explains this phenomenon by stating that people to continue to file-share despite the fact that it’s illegal because “everybody’s doing it.” That’s certainly part of it– much like speed limit laws– but I know for many people at Stanford, it’s also about thumbing our nose at the establishment, showing the entertainment industry (and the people they control on Capitol Hill) that their maniacal hold on how music and movies are distributed is slowly starting to slip– as it should. Everybody talks about Microsoft as a monopoly, but people forget that there are only a handful of entertainment companies– they’re just hidden well with all their subsidiaries and partners. And consumers, file-sharers, are finding that the Internet and digital media is the start of the way to cause a revolutionary change in how business is conducted, to get their power back.

We know it’s illegal, but we break it because we believe the law to be wrong and in hopes that the law will be changed. Isn’t that what America is all about? The Internet was born here, in our research institutions and our government organizations, and it has spread across the country, the world and has invaded, pervaded every aspect of our lives, from the trivial to the essential. How can we be surprised that the Internet and digital technology have become the driving force behind revolutionary change in intellectual property rights and consumer empowerment?