Online piracy bill could be major burden for colleges

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a SOPA sponsor who has defended the law against critics, said the bill was a “commitment toward ensuring that law enforcement and job creators have the necessary tools to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.”

The powerful entertainment industry has had the upper hand on educators in legislative discussions of monitoring the internet, Alexander said. Colleges’ disparate voices don’t help matters for higher education.

“Historically, opposition from education has had very little effect … and quite frankly, we’re outgunned,” he said. “Hollywood has enormous resources, and they have the capacity to unite behind one stance. We can’t do that in higher ed. We don’t speak with one voice.”

EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit educational technology group, supported parts of SOPA in a Nov. 22 letter to Congress but said the legislation was too broad and threatened to impose permanent hardship on campus ed-tech leaders.

“The higher-education community believes that websites whose main purpose and activity is to enable and promote infringement should be targeted aggressively by the content owners in whose interest it is to bring civil actions,” the EDUCAUSE letter said. “Unfortunately, although its goals are appropriate, SOPA goes beyond these reasonable, pragmatic mechanisms for addressing infringement by casting its net more widely.”

The legislation would bring “new risks” to “mainstream websites” hosted by colleges and universities, while forcing the schools to deal with an onslaught of lawsuits and legal complaints from copyright holders who believe their content has been illegally obtained.

Campuses would be exposed “to harassment, to unwarranted and expensive litigation, and to new forms of liability,” the letter said. “In short, in the name of stopping infringement, SOPA can also inhibit or stop a far wider range of perfectly legitimate activity.”

With the goal of sharing online content between institutions, educational technology could be particularly vulnerable to claims of violating SOPA if the law is passed, said Phil Hill, an ed-tech consultant and analyst who blogs for e-Literate, a site that tracks technology use in higher education.

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