Music ‘tax’ proposed as file-sharing solution

The music industry is floating the idea of a compulsory royalty fee for U.S. college students that would allow for file sharing on campus computer networks without the threat of a legal backlash.

Prominent universities have seen outlines of the plan–which aims to pay copyright holders with student fees–and while some campus officials want to hear more about the proposal, other colleges have rejected an across-the-board student fee that would legalize unlimited file sharing using any web site, network, software, or hardware that students prefer. 

The proposed student fee surfaces as administrators and IT chiefs at public universities nationwide say the music industry’s search for students accused of online piracy is cutting into their faculty’s work day. In recent months, some universities have refused to forward "pre-litigation" letters to students offering them a settlement to avoid further legal action from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). (See "Colleges push back against RIAA’s methods.")

The RIAA did not return eMail messages seeking comment.

Forwarding these documents is not a legal responsibility of the college, administrators say, and tracking down students who might have downloaded music or movies illegally is time-consuming, forcing IT specialists to comb through university computer networks, pinpoint specific illegal actions, and find students.

Warner Music Group, an industry giant, has helped pitch the student fee proposal to well-known universities, including the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. Bronson Hilliard, a university spokesman, said Colorado officials decided against the plan after hearing the pitch. The university did not want to be entangled in the battle between the RIAA and students who violate file-sharing laws.

"We felt there were too many difficulties with it for us," Hilliard said. "Obligating students on that kind of system was just not something we wanted to do. … There were some legal and technical considerations … and it really just wasn’t something that the institution was ready to get on board with yet. It was not any pure, single driving reason."

A spokesman for the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE said a new system that would reduce the legal clashes between students and the RIAA would be a welcomed change. But the spokesman, Steve Worona, noted in his statement that specifics of the plan were not concrete.

"The details of the plan appear to be subject to campus-by-campus negotiation, and so it’s not possible to comment on the specifics. But we note the reference to ‘new voluntary business models that seek something other than a litigation-based approach,’ and this is certainly a welcome and ground-breaking initiative from the recording industry," Worona said. "The industry’s existing business model is incompatible with the digital world of the 21st century, and we applaud attempts to find new models that meet the needs and expectations of consumers. Whether the current proposal ultimately succeeds is less important than the industry’s new-found willingness to explore alternatives."

Several media reports said the music industry has discussed the royalty fee with about a dozen universities. Spokespeople for several universities contacted by eSchool News, including the University of Washington, said no formal discussions had been held.

Stanford University attorney Lauren Schoenthaler said campus officials have "received two eMails from Warner [Music Group] about the concept, but we are still waiting for the proposal from Warner to review."

Other schools, like Penn State University, said the compulsory student fee was pitched to campus officials as early as last year. Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the school isn’t close to adopting the file-sharing policy.

"Bottom line: Penn State has not yet made any decisions in relation to any of this," Powers said.

The recent influx of RIAA "cease-and-desist" notices has spurred a backlash from some schools. University of Kansas officials announced this summer that its IT department would no longer forward "pre-litigation" papers to students.

"We really had to make a decision philosophically about what our role was in this whole issue," said Denise Stephens, the university’s vice provost for information services and chief information officer. "We’d be acting as a go-between for an external party seeking to get information about our students. … We decided that was not our role."