House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) downloaded plenty of controversy late last week when he introduced a higher education bill that pits colleges against the entertainment industry. One provision in the bill, which is set for a markup today, would force campuses to give more of an “old college try” to stop students from illegally downloading movies and music.
The measure has been hailed by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.
But higher education lobbyists are livid over the bill’s requirement that universities spend resources to find new alternatives to illegal downloading and to explore technology to prevent such activity on campus networks.
The College Opportunity and Affordability Act, they say, is anything but.
“The federal government should not require nonprofit educational institutions to develop plans to help for-profit industry earn more profit from students,” said Matt Owens, assistant director of federal relations for the Association of American Universities.
Owens’ group is one of several that, along with individual universities, has launched a lobbying effort aimed at convincing Miller’s committee to scratch that provision from the bill, a reauthorization of the original 1965 Higher Education Act that deals mainly with financial aid programs.
The committee, though, has not been swayed. “Illegal downloading and file sharing is theft,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for the Education Committee. “It’s wrong and among other things it hurts California’s economy and jobs in the state.”
The downloading piece is just one tiny part of several problems education lobbyists say they have with the bill.
“This is a small provision in a bill that goes to the heart of many programs that are important to institutions of higher learning,” said Scott Sudduth, an in-house lobbyist for the University of California. “In the bill as drafted, there are many provisions dealing with new reporting requirements related to college costs that frankly will be the large focus of this bill. We have some concerns. We think some of the draft provisions are very convoluted.”
The group EDUCAUSE, which represents more than 2,200 campuses and has about 17,000 active members, this weekend issued a call to action over the illegal downloading provision, urging its supporters to call their Members of Congress. Many of EDUCAUSE’s members are the chief information officers at colleges and universities.
EDUCAUSE, like most other higher education lobbying organizations, is fine with some of the illegal downloading provisions in the bill, including one that would require schools to publicize their policies on punishing students caught breaking copyright laws by downloading movies or music.
Owens said his group also supports universities disclosing that copyright infringement is illegal and letting students and the public know what institutional consequences schools have set up.
“Universities are already doing a lot to thwart illegal file-sharing on their campuses,” Owens said. “This proposed disclosure requirement would allow universities to demonstrate what they’re already doing.”
The education lobbyists’ opposition is focused on a provision that would require schools to come up with plans for alternatives to illegal downloading; possibly, for example, purchasing subscriptions for their students to legally download material.
“This is a financial issue,” said Mark Luker, EDUCAUSE’s vice president and head of its Washington, D.C., office. “Colleges and universities will have to pay for these services, and that money will get transferred to the entertainment industry. We don’t think that’s reasonable for the federal government to ask every college and university to do that.”
Luker also complained that many of the legal file-sharing sites aren’t up to snuff, don’t carry certain musicians or are not working with iPods.
“We think the industry should iron that out, make the products better, before the federal government asks us to buy it,” he said. He added that technology to stop illegal file-sharing doesn’t work and in some cases blocks out legitimate sharing among academics on campus networks.
Sudduth of the 200,000-student California system said UC already has negotiated discount agreements with legal file-sharing services. “The fact is students aren’t using them,” Sudduth said. In addition, he said, two-thirds of students who access illegal downloading sites do so from off-campus networks.
“What industry wants us to do is, if students are downloading music illegally through our service provider, then they want us to take the student off-line, which we are perfectly willing to do, so long as we are not being asked to monitor the content of what our students are doing on the Web,” he said.
Angela Martinez, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said her group had made the issue a lobbying priority and supports the House provision. “Piracy on college campuses is a really huge problem,” she said. “It takes up bandwidth and clogs the system.”
Martinez said her industry estimates that 44 percent of all its losses is from campus piracy.
Higher education lobbyists contend that the MPAA’s numbers are inflated, and even if they are accurate, the college lobbyists say, their campuses are but a small part of the entertainment industry’s overall downloading problems.
“It doesn’t seem right that a mere fraction of the file-sharing occurs at universities, and yet we are the target,” said Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president for Congressional and governmental affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
NASULGC and the other groups successfully thwarted similar efforts in the Senate higher education bill, which they say they support. The Senate-passed bill does require schools to disclose their efforts against illegal downloading.
Luker said the move by Miller and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) was a giveaway to the MPAA’s and RIAA’s lobbying campaign over the past five years of asking Congress “to control their business problem.”
The industry has stepped up its campaign donations to Miller this election cycle. In 2006, the movies and music industry did not even register among the top 20 industries that donated to Miller’s coffers, according to a study of federal election records by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. So far this cycle, the entertainment sector is the ninth most generous industry to Miller’s campaign.
“This legislation, for the first time, obligates universities to play a more active role in responding to the problem in a meaningful way,” said RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth in an e-mailed statement. “And that, in and of itself, is a very good thing.”
In recent years, the higher education and entertainment sectors have worked together, including a conference earlier this year, to discuss the illegal downloading issue on campus networks. The bill is doing little to foster any togetherness between the two sides.
“The higher education community has been at the table with a lot of good will and interest in coming to a place with the entertainment industry that makes sense,” Poulakidas said. “And it doesn’t help when, off to the side, the entertainment industry is cutting deals on legislation. It’s been disheartening that they’re pursuing legislation.”
An entertainment industry lobbyist who would only be quoted on condition of anonymity said the university groups that are complaining are making a big deal over nothing. “This is not a particularly heavy lift. It’s not as if we’re asking them to invent fire here,” this lobbyist said. “What’s being asked of them and what they’re representing is being asked of them are just vastly different things.”