Whose side are they on, anyway?

September 11th, 2006 by Ross Scaife

Timidity and obsequiousness watch; or, Peter Suber nails it:

Universities take industry word for copyright law

By Peter Suber

Cory Doctorow, USC Copyright rules are flawed, Daily Trojan, September 11, 2006. Excerpt:

As students were returning to the USC campus for the 2006-2007 year, they were sent an ominous memo on “Copyright Compliance,” signed by Michael Pearce, USC deputy chief information officer and Michael L. Jackson, vice president for Student Affairs. This extraordinary document set out a bizarre, nonlegal view of copyright’s intent and the university’s purpose, and made it clear that in its authors’ views, scholarship takes a backseat to copyright….

The memo’s purpose was to warn the student body from using peer-to-peer programs and other file-sharing tools. They did so not to warn them against using these tools to infringe copyright, but rather to warn them against using them at all on pain of losing their Internet access. The memo equates file sharing with infringement.

But this is a narrow and inaccurate view of P2P. P2P systems are the largest libraries of human creativity ever assembled. Even Grokster, the system shut down by the Supreme Court in a highly publicized case last year, was found by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to have more noninfringing documents than were held in the world’s largest library collections – millions, tens of millions of works that were lawful to search and download.

P2P is a collection of material that might have reduced an earlier generation of scholars to tears. As a science-fiction writer, I’ve grown up with grandiose predictions about the future, but no jet-pack futurist was so audacious as to imagine a repository of knowledge as rich and potent as P2P….

Why would USC trumpet this one-sided, extremist view of copyright? Isn’t the university’s purpose to promote scholarship? Shouldn’t a university be aggressively defending scholarship against organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America, whose indiscriminate enforcers send sloppy takedown notices to university profs named “Usher” whose lecture audio files called “usher.mp3″ are mistaken for songs by the artist Usher?

The answer is that, according to the memo, “USC’s purpose is to promote and foster the creation and lawful use of intellectual property.”

It’s hard to imagine a more shocking statement in an official university communique. If this statement were true, then the measure of USC’s success would be the number of patents filed and the number of copyrights registered rather than the amount of original research undertaken, the number of diplomas granted, the volume of citations in scholarly journals…

Comment. Cory is right and the problem extends far beyond USC. Universities routinely accept propaganda from the copyright industry as an accurate statement of copyright law. This causes two kinds of harm. First, universities needlessly shrink the scope of fair use and retreat from permissible (i.e. licensed) copying and redistribution, both for entertainment and for scholarship. Second, they abdicate their responsibility to understand the actual rules and teach them to students.

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