Colleges' options include limiting how much bandwidth can be consumed by peer-to-peer networking.

Colleges' options include limiting how much bandwidth can be consumed by peer-to-peer networking.

Starting this month, colleges and universities that don’t do enough to combat the illegal sharing of digital movies or music over their computer networks put themselves at risk of 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.

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 regulations that went into effect July 1.

That means goodbye to peer-to-peer file-sharing on a few campuses—with exceptions for gamers or open-source software junkies—as well as gentle warnings on others and extensive education programs everywhere else.

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.

But whether the investment of time and money will make a dent in digital piracy is uncertain.

“If the university is going to prohibit underage drinking, I think it ought to prohibit anything on the internet that’s illegal, too,” said Alicia Richardson, an Illinois State University junior who applauds her school’s restrictive policies on file-sharing. “I’m not going to mess with it. I know the consequences.”

Among other things, schools must educate their campus communities on the issue and offer legal alternatives to downloading “to the extent practicable.” Colleges and universities that don’t comply risk losing their eligibility for federal student aid. (For advice on complying with the law, see “Ten ways to combat illegal file sharing.”)

Many colleges worried they would be asked to monitor or block content. But the provision says schools have a great deal of flexibility, as long as they use at least one “technology-based deterrent.”

Their options include taking steps to limit 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.

Almost all campuses already manage bandwidth or vigorously process infringement, or “takedown,” notices, said Steven Worona, director of policy and networking programs for Educause, a higher-education technology advocacy group.

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.

“The problem campuses have is that commercial network providers are not doing anything to limit the amount of infringement on their networks or educate their customers about copyright law,” Worona said. “Every fall, a new cadre of students arrives on campuses who have been engaging in infringing activity since the third grade.”