The Download Dilemma


By Wendy Melillo

Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM

When a student in one of UCLA’s eight residence halls wants the hit tune “Dance, Dance” from Fall Out Boy, a free version is just a few keystrokes away. Launch a popular file-sharing program like Kazaa or LimeWire and the song is available in minutes. Want to share “Dance, Dance” with friends in another dorm? They can use the same file-sharing program to download it from the sender’s hard drive. Ditto for movies.

It’s that easy. It’s also illegal.

Peer-to-peer file-sharing of free downloads means the creators of the works in question get nothing for their creations, which is why record companies, movie studios and a fair number of famous artists have another word for the practice: piracy. Welcome to the download dilemma, a painfully complex stew of points of view that pits kids against corporations, artists against audiences, perceived rights against legal copyrights. And the nation’s universities are caught in the crossfire.

Does an institution ban the technology that allows file-sharing, even when it’s used for pristine reasons like student research? More ominously, does it prowl its own networks, looking for culprits? Or does it antagonize the entertainment industry — and Congress, which is trying to legislate the issue — and do nothing? “Piracy is the label the industry has given it in order to justify punitive action,” says Anthony Seeger, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and the nephew of legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. “I think they should be coming up with ways to distribute music effectively on the Internet so that students can have access to music easily and affordably.”

The problem is the pirate, not the navy, counters Myrl Schreibman ’67, M.F.A. ’69, UCLA adjunct professor of film and television. “I am involved in educating the next level of producers and directors and I am very sensitive to the possibility that their material could be ripped off. It raises some hairs on the back of my neck.” (The subject is up close and personal for the professor, currently involved in a lawsuit against DreamWorks and Warner Bros. over their 2005 movie The Island, which Schreibman alleges is a copyright infringement of a 1979 film he co-produced called The Clonus Horror.)

For UCLA, the download dilemma boils down to basic obligations: protect its students, not to mention itself, and obey the law. And the campus, working with the University of California, has taken a leadership position in looking for ways to resolve the issue.

UCLA’s solution required a delicate balancing act, protecting a student’s right to use such programs for legitimate research purposes while installing a notification system to detect theft. It involved launching a campuswide education effort to teach students about the importance of protecting intellectual property. And with the recently unveiled “Get Legal” program, UCLA now offers students a legitimate and inexpensive way to buy content.

“We wanted to be very careful to deal with these [issues] in a way that stayed within our policies and cultural values, addressed the due process of the students, met the legal requirements of the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and showed our respect for copyright in the sense of being a producer of intellectual capital,” says Jim Davis, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor of information technology and chief information officer.

The notification system, installed on residence hall networks in 2004, is designed to deal with alleged file- sharing offenders without shutting down their online ability to communicate with professors, get access to class materials or check e-mail. The solution grew out of discussions UCLA and UC officials had with Universal Studios, Disney and other studios as part of a working group.