The RIAA and Universities

Hey there, college students. There's a new fee on next semester's tuition. No, it's not to cover upgrades in the library or repaving the bike paths. It's to cover the music you're stealing. And you've got no say in the matter.

Warner Music Group recently approached a number of Universities throughout the US with a problem, and a wonderfully elegant solution. The problem? College students "steal" music. Now, we're not talking about walking out of Target with it tucked under your jacket, when they say "steal" they mean "copyright infringement", the big DL, swappin' bits, or whatever you kids are calling it these days. Downloading music.

Warner proposed a truly graceful solution, one that I'm sure any 14th century monarch would be proud of: just fine EVERYONE! It is much too time consuming and expensive to actually bring everyone to court, especially for the relatively small number of people actually committing a crime. Rather than just take the shotgun-to-a-swarm-of-bees-in-front-of-a-small-child approach they have been, where an occasional target actually settles out of court, though hundreds of innocent people get accused and dragged through lengthy, expensive legal proceedings, Warner would like to simply place an arbitrary "tax" on all university students. A few dollars, maybe $5 or $10/mo, from every student, in every university in the country! This would all go into (their words, not mine) "a pot of money". Then they would, on their honor, dole out money to content creators (it will be too hard to find out who) and license holders (themselves and their friends) in a "fair, not profit-motivated manner".

And what do you get in exchange for this wonderful, per-student tax? The RIAA agrees to not sue the University. Note, this doesn't say students, it says University. There are roughly 20.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in the US, according to the 2006 census . This means this pot-o-gold they're hoping to gather could easily be in the hundreds of millions of dollars a MONTH, and billions per year.

Think about that. They're trying to set up a scheme by which they get billions of dollars a year from students who've done nothing wrong, simply by virtue of belonging to a group in which SOME members break the law, and offer no protection in return.

One of the particularly upsetting points is on Slide 4, Point 1, Subpoint 2. "All Students or None". This means that despite never having downloaded an album illegally, copied a friend's CD or even listened to music played in an unlicensed venue, students will be forking over $5-10/mo in protection money. Now think about this: $15/mo gets you unlimited music from Microsoft, Rhapsody, or eMusic, legally. But they want $10 simply because SOME students at SOME universities are downloading music, and better to drown them all.

I hope, with every capitalist bone in my body, that no University would sell out its own students for this. I really genuinely do. But I have seen the music industry do some monumentally cruel things to its best customers, and the fact that this proposition is on the table means that somewhere, someone is considering it (Update: Columbia, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Washington, MIT, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, Cornell, Penn State, University of California at Berkeley and University of Virginia are in active talks, "considering" it). And it only takes one before "precedent" is set and more fall in line. How long before this just gets rolled into our monthly Internet connection bill?

If you find yourself on the receiving end of such a fee, I strongly encourage you not to pay it. Pay your University fees, short the exact amount of the RIAA protection money. Refuse to pay, write a polite but firm letter to your bursar that you don't download illegal music and feel that being treated as though you were a criminal by your own University is both wrong and unlawful. If the RIAA wishes to bring charges, then bring them in a court of law, not behind closed doors where the accused can't even hear the charges against them or face their accuser.

One final gem: "Our approach is supported by the EFF, Public Knowledge and many organizations dedicated to network freedom." Representatives of both the EFF and Public Knowledge have spoken out against this. They were never contacted for comment, input, feedback, or approval. It was just put in the bottom.

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