Starting this month, colleges and universities that don't do enough to combat the illegal swapping of "Avatar" or Lady Gaga over their computer networks risk losing federal funding.
A provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 is making schools a reluctant ally in the entertainment industry's campaign to stamp out unauthorized distribution of copyrighted music, movies and TV shows.
In Kansas, students who violate the policy risk getting blocked from their school's campus network, which would prevent them from using it to access the Internet, course information or student records.
When students return to Wichita State and other universities this fall, they'll find additional warnings and tips on how to purchase downloads legally.
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Colleges and universities must put in place plans "to effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material by users of the institution's network" without hampering legitimate educational and research use, according to the regulations. Schools that don't comply risk losing their eligibility for federal student aid.
Though Kansas schools had to make some changes to meet the piracy provision, officials at
Wichita State and Kansas State said they were prepared well before the July 1 compliance date.
"Overall, I think Kansas is doing much, much better in this area than many other states," said Ravi Pendse, Wichita State's associate provost and chief information officer.
The university has received fewer complaints from copyright holders about alleged copyright violations since it updated its policy to meet the piracy provision in January 2009, he said.
When WSU students move into residence halls, Pendse said, tech support personnel help them set up their computers and talk to them about what's legal. The campus has also hosted open sessions with students discussing online downloading. In addition, students receive an e-mail each semester reminding them to follow the university's Internet policy.
"I am so proud of students because they seem to be listening," Pendse said.
The problem of online piracy is cultural, Pendse said, and this provision provides an opportunity to teach students.
"Younger people believe in sharing information open-source, and they don't understand what they're doing is wrong and illegal," Pendse said.
Illegal downloading has been an issue for universities since the online music file sharing service Napster began in 1999, said Harvard Townsend, K-State's chief information security officer.
This year, K-State's going to start reminding its students annually of the new policy.
In 2009, the technology department updated its website and a handout on file sharing. But because K-State has had a technological filter in place since 2003, Townsend said it did not have to change too much to comply with the federal law.
The filter blocks specific peer-to-peer file-sharing programs, and students living in the residence halls must pass a security check before they can use K-State's network. Townsend said the university cannot control the activity of students living off-campus, except when they are using university computers or personal laptops on campus.
Jamie Brooksher, general counsel for Pittsburg State, said she did not think the new provision would have much effect on online piracy. Because of the requirement that universities offer legal alternatives for downloading, Pittsburg State included places to download legally on its website, but Brooksher said students who choose pirating are already aware of these sites.
Despite initial angst about invading students' privacy and doing the entertainment industry's dirty work, college and university officials are largely satisfied with regulations that call for steps many of them put in place years ago.
Their options include limiting how much bandwidth can be consumed by peer-to-peer networking, monitoring traffic, using a commercial product to reduce or block illegal file sharing, or vigorously responding to copyright infringement notices from copyright holders.
While the recording industry has backed off its strategy of suing illegal file-sharers, it still sends infringement notices to colleges — a shot across the bow that urges users to delete and disable computer access to unauthorized music to avoid legal action.
Since October 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America said, it has sent 1.8 million infringement notices to commercial Internet service providers — and 269,609 to colleges and universities.
The association, which represents the major music labels, stressed that the numbers don't necessarily reflect piracy trends, but rather the group's ability to detect it.