WASHINGTON--What's wrong with Congress being a little stingy about doling out taxpayer dollars to universities if they let peer-to-peer file-sharing pirates run amok on campus networks?
Not a thing, says the Motion Picture Association of America's top lawyer in the nation's capital.
On the heels of a House of Representatives committee's passage of a higher-education funding bill that includes new antipiracy obligations for universities that participate in federal financial aid programs, MPAA Washington general counsel Fritz Attaway suggested it's reasonable to condition federal education funding on copyright enforcement efforts.
"When the government is subsidizing universities...and it discovers that those universities are spending a lot of taxpayers' money to build digital networks that are being used primarily to allow college students to traffic in infringing content, I think it's perfectly legitimate for Congress to say, wait a minute, if we're giving you money, we don't want it to be used to help college kids infringe copyright," Attaway said during a panel discussion here Monday that was organized by the Federal Communications Bar Association.
At the same time, Attaway attempted to diffuse alarms universities and fair-use advocates are sounding about the House's higher-education bill. Embedded in the more-than-700-page bill is a requirement that universities devise plans for providing their students alternatives to illegal downloading and developing technology-based filters to keep offending content out of students' hands in the first place.
The MPAA vice president emphasized that there's technically no requirement under the bill that universities actually sign up for such "alternatives," namely subscription-based music services like Ruckus.com and Napster, nor that they actually activate the filters they're planning to develop. Committee aides close to the bill-drafting process have denied that schools would see their funding yanked if they didn't come up with satisfactory plans, even if Attaway seemed to suggest that wouldn't be a bad idea.
University representatives who oppose the provision have acknowledged, too, that they're not sure what exactly the punishment would be for failing to craft such plans, although some have read the bill to say their schools would no longer be eligible for at least some student financial aid programs.
Attaway's defense of the bill drew a sharp rebuke, however, from Gigi Sohn, president of the digital-rights advocacy group Public Knowledge. "Why do you put things in bills that you don't want to enforce at some point?" she asked. "Even if I agree, and I don't, that it's toothless, I don't want that language in there for some other Congress to give it some teeth."
There's still a chance that the Hollywood-backed provision won't survive any final version of the legislation. That's what happened when a similar proposal came before the U.S. Senate this summer. The full House is expected to debate the broader higher-education funding bill soon after it returns from its Thanksgiving recess in early December.