[Editor Charlie sez: This post first ran in December 2010]
You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. The poker capital of Cambridge, Mass. a/k/a The Berkman Center got something of a bad hand in the form of an unsigned editorial from the staff of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University, “A Sensible Compromise: The MPAA’s recent approach to illegal downloading is refreshing”. (Yes, that’s really the title, and no, it’s not a spoof.)
The editorial supports a graduated response plan to call out students who misuse the Harvard network for illegal downloading. Why? As The Crimson puts it, because “the unauthorized downloading of copyrighted music, movies, and television programs is wrong.”
Wow. “Wrong”. That sounds positively moral.
A bit of context–the 2008 legislation for federal aid to universities–the “higher education bill”–makes a connection between taxpayer dollars for universities and an obligation on the part of those universities to keep their students from using university networks and bandwidth to steal everything that’s not nailed down. Lessig, a Harvard ethics professor, has said “”What does it say about our democracy when ordinary behavior is deemed criminal?”” I guess it says that “ordinary behavior” is wrong when it is ordinary to break the law. I won’t even get into the very, very long list of “ordinary behavior” that reeks so badly that even the most relative of moral relativists would have to call foul. (For an example of relativism, see “Poker money and the ethics prof“.
Apparently, many universities (“thousands” by the looks of the article in The Crimson) are a bit slow on the uptake in developing and implementing these plans. Although no university has had any interruption in federal largesse, the 112th Congress is shaping up to be a contender for the least porcine Session in many a year. It’s not like the universities don’t know. Someone will have to be first.
Long-time MTP readers may remember our 2007 post “Fred von Lohman’s Thimblerig, or Fun with Fallacies on the Short Con” which discussed the ideas in the higher education bill in some detail. The backdrop for the post was an early example of the “don’t be moral” line of reasoning emanating from the intellectual loins of that starfighter of the EFF who recently was waived in for a soft landing by his ideological fellows at Google. (See also “Did EFF Lawyer Cross the Line in Limewire Case?”)
So you see, the laudible position taken by The Crimson staff has a history. The MPAA’s approach isn’t the only thing that’s refreshing:
“Our support for the MPAA’s actions is based on our belief that the unauthorized downloading of music, movies, and television programs, although easy, is questionable at the most basic level. In our postindustrial economy, the protection of intellectual property rights is important for several reasons. First, these rights must be safeguarded in order to provide an incentive for innovation. Without any guarantee of legitimacy, entrepreneurs will have no motivation to create new intellectual property, as it could be stolen at any time. Second, at a broader level, intellectual property rights are important because each person has a fundamental right to enjoy the fruits of his or her mental labor. Intellectual entrepreneurship requires a broad societal commitment to the rule of law and the importance of private enterprise.
This approach strikes the right balance between targeting individuals—who, in the end, are ultimately responsible for their online behavior—and universities, who provide the network resources that can be used to facilitate copyright violations.”
Personal responsibility for “ordinary behavior”, eh? Lessig could take a lesson from The Crimson.
Class is in session.