Colleges wary of policing intellectual property

SAN JOSE, Calif.-The nation’s colleges have quietly succumbed to pressure from the entertainment industry to crack down on student use of file-sharing networks to trade music and movies.

But many educators are ambivalent about being forced into the role of intellectual-property police. They worry that universities, fearful of being slapped with a Napster-like suit for contributing to copyright infringement, have become so aggressive they’re compromising intellectual freedom on campus.

Since October, when the recording industry urged 2,300 college presidents to treat online music piracy as they would the theft of a textbook from the campus bookstore, universities have responded with a vigor that makes some educators uncomfortable.

The entertainment industry escalated its efforts last week, putting corporations on notice they could be sued if their networks were found to be harboring copyrighted work.

Many universities consider downloading a movie or song a potential honor court violation that, on first offense, can lead to temporary termination of a school Internet account, and, in the instance of repeated violations, suspension or expulsion.

“My job, as an information security person, is to try and protect the institution,” said Cedric S. Bennett, Stanford’s director of information security services. “Sooner or later, somebody’s going to go after an institution. And Stanford would be a big target.”

Penn State, Stanford and others warn incoming students, as part of orientation, that trading music, films and other copyrighted works over the Internet is a crime. They spell it out again in the “terms of use” policy every student signs before they receive access to the campus network.

“We try to do it the right way. We’re trying to say you cannot violate copyright, not that you can’t use Kazaa. You can’t steal other people’s intellectual property,” said Jack McCredie, UC-Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor of information technology. `It doesn’t matter whether its music or video or somebody else’s term paper.”

Students who, despite warnings, load Kazaa, iMesh or any other popular file-trading software onto their computers, are typically given one opportunity to get caught and clean up their act.

Consider the fate of Steven Goldstein, who was temporarily booted from San Jose State University’s network last month for offering a Rob Zombie track, and 246 other songs and movies, on the Kazaa file-sharing network.

The school refused to restore his access until he signed a letter, acknowledging that trading copyrighted works without the creator’s express permission violates the law.

“If I didn’t sign … I would not have Internet access at all,” said Goldstein, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in business management, but still lives on campus.