Recently, the president of the Recording Industry Association of America, Cary Sherman, wrote to Harvard to challenge the university administration to stop acting as a “passive conduit” for students downloading music. We agree. Harvard and the 22 universities to which the RIAA has sent “pre-litigation notices” ought to take strong, direct action…and tell the RIAA to take a hike.
This Spring, 1,200 pre-litigation letters arrived unannounced at universities across the country. The RIAA promises more will follow. These letters tell the university which students the RIAA plans on suing, identifying the students only by their IP addresses, the “license plates” of Internet connections. Because the RIAA does not know the names behind the IP addresses, the letters ask the universities to deliver the notices to the proper students, rather than relying upon the ordinary legal mechanisms.
Universities should have no part in this extraordinary process. The RIAA’s charter is to promote the financial interests of its corporate members – even if that means preserving an obsolete business model for its members. The university’s charter is quite different. Harvard’s charter reflects the purposes for which it was founded in 1636: “The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the … youth of this country….”
The university strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. The university has no legal obligation to deliver the RIAA’s messages. It should do so only if it believes that’s consonant with the university’s mission.
We believe it is not.
Universities are special places, set off in time and space for students to have an opportunity most will not again have: to learn together in a community that cherishes openness above all else. If the university is perceived as doing the bidding of any particular industry, the message we’re sending to students is that the university is willing to let commercial interests intrude.
Of course there are times when that intrusion is warranted. The horror of Virginia Tech is on all our minds and in our hearts. There are far lesser justifications for allowing the arms of government and commerce to interrupt the secular sanctity of the university’s educational space. But protecting claims of copyright – whether or not legitimate claims – by passing along messages requiring students to pay lump sums to record companies just doesn’t warrant the betrayal of student’s trust and privacy.
The university does have an obligation to teach our students to be good citizens. Good citizens should be accountable for their actions. If our students are breaking the law, they should pay the price. That’s not the issue here. The RIAA has already sued well over 10,000 people, including many students, directly. They seem to be engaging in a classic tactic of the bully facing someone much weaker: threatening such dire consequences that the students settle without the issue going to court. The issue is that the university should not be carrying the industry’s water in bringing lawsuits.
The subtitle of the RIAA’s own press release puts a far more pleasant gloss on this: “New Program Invigorates Campus Conversations About Consequences For Illegal Downloading.”
If the RIAA wants to stimulate conversation, then it should engage in genuine dialogue. Come join us on campus. Come talk to the digital natives who are our students, to the faculty who care about fair intellectual property protections, and to the university counsel and technical teams who manage our strategies and operations in cyberspace. The RIAA should be asking, along with the rest of us, if we can come up with models that reward artists for their work while allowing the maximum circulation and use of their creations, as our Founding Fathers intended.
We should also be discussing the most important issue of all. Universities provide an open space in which every idea can be heard and discussed. Every limitation on the circulation of ideas works directly against the university’s mission. How can we open up more ideas, more works, more conversations, while, of course, preserving the legitimate rights of creators? How can we make the university far more open than it is now? How can universities – just like the RIAA – embrace a digital future and make the most of its opportunities?
Being the unpaid enforcement arm of the provincial interests of the RIAA is no part of the answer to these questions.