Piracy on the Seas of Higher Education

By Graham Spanier, President, Penn State University

Advances in information technology have allowed universities to gain educational tools we never dreamed of 20 years ago. Engineering classes can meet online to solve problems. Political science students are able to post their papers on class Web sites for peer review. And oceanography researchers are holding video conferences with teams of collaborators from thousands of miles away. But as high-speed Internet access has enabled so many great opportunities at universities across the country, we are faced more than ever with the challenge of using that technology responsibly.

At the core of our mission at Penn State is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The knowledge created and taught by our faculty is a form of intellectual property. And part of our mission is to support integrity and ethical behavior in respecting such property. But we are now confronted with a tough reality: College campuses have become ground zero for the online piracy of some of our nation’s most sought after intellectual property—movies, music, and software.

When we stand by idly and allow our students to abuse the privilege of high-speed Internet access for illegal downloading, we are failing our principles and we are failing our students.

We are not campuses of thieves. Students don’t go to the local Blockbuster and walk out with the latest DVD without paying. Undergrads don’t go to the campus bookstore and sneak out with a new textbook. So why, we must ask ourselves, do we have such a moral blind spot when it comes to stealing on the Internet?

Our community is grounded in the notion that one’s original work—from the p'etry of our professors to the discoveries of our scientists—will be recognized and protected. We do a great disservice to our own scholars and creators when we tolerate an environment of copyright infringement.

Sadly, there are tangible consequences to illegal file sharing beyond compromising our values. The massive quantity of pirated files being uploaded and downloaded in dorm rooms across university campuses is devouring our bandwidth, slowing down our networks, and contributing to the spread of viruses that can wreak havoc on our networks, punishing not just those who illegally share files but everyone else connected to the network.

It is now time for colleges and universities to take aggressive steps—even when unpopular with students—to combat the piracy of copyrighted material that is rampant across the country.

Many of us in the academic community have developed policies for responsible student computer use on campus. At Penn State we have deployed an array of solutions to minimize the trafficking in illegal content, including the provision of free unlimited access to music through an online service paid for by the university. At the same time, those violating our computer policies risk having their access to the network revoked. Other sanctions may be imposed by our Office of Judicial Affairs.

It should not surprise us that the Motion Picture Association of America recently announced that it will begin filing suits against those who steal movies online. This action underscores to a new generation that stealing is stealing, no matter what the method, and that it is wrong and has consequences.

The motion picture and music industries should not have to act alone in trying to hold at bay those who would take their products without permission. As educators and administrators, we should lead by example rather than wait for a wave of lawsuits to force us to change our behavior.

I urge college and university presidents to take up this challenge and promote a change in the culture of campus networking. Stealing is not among our values.

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