The House yesterday passed a higher-education bill (HR 4137) that included language requiring colleges and universities to deal with what Hollywood sees as a problem in digital downloads.
The bill, which passed 354-58, said the colleges and universities “shall”, which means there isn't much room for discussion, “develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity” and report on their policies.
This section, while seemingly benign, was built from an incorrect premise. According to the House Education and Labor Committee report on the bill: “College students often use their campus internet networks to download and share music, movies, and television programs. When they do it without the permission of the owner of the content, it is theft. This illegal file-sharing has exploded in recent years, and too much of it occurs on college campuses.” Given that 80 percent of students live off campus, and that many campuses have programs to deal with file-sharing, the language was unnecessary.
The Committee included a provision for grants to allow colleges and universities to find new “technology-based deterrents,” but until money is actually set aside by the congressional spending committees, that provision isn't worth much.
In addition, the report language, which is a guide to legislative thinking on the bill, noted that the bill didn't mandate any particular technology to combat “piracy,” and that no student would lose aid as a result of engaging in illegal file sharing.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) had been prepared to offer an amendment in the House Rules Committee that would have said: “This amendment clarifies Congress’s intent that nothing in the Higher Education Act (HEA) be construed to deny or reduce funding for federal student loan or other student financial aid programs to any higher education institution based on that institution’s failure to comply with the HEA’s new requirements concerning digital theft.”
However, on the evening of the Rules Committee meeting, Cohen was back in his Memphis district dealing with the aftermath of deadly storms that struck his area. The amendment wasn't offered in the Rules Committee, and there is no guarantee it would have been accepted, but in any case that was the only time an amendment could have been proposed.
The amendment clarification was nice, although we would have preferred that the section be stripped out entirely.
The Senate passed its version of the bill last July (S 1642), and that bill takes a different approach. It said that “unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material on the institution's information technology systems, including engaging in unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing, may subject the students to civil and criminal penalties.”
The next step is a conference committee between the Senate and the House to work out differences in the bill. We'll work to make sure the bad language gets stripped out.