We’ve often written here about how the copyright industry loves to confuse attribution with control of copying. The two are quite different, of course: plagiarism is not the same as the unauthorized sharing of properly-attributed materials. For example, when college students download songs from the Internet, they do not replace the artists’ names with their own. The vast majority of shared files are accurately credited, even when the copying itself is illegal.
But the industry knows that the public gets much more upset about misattribution (“Artists deserve credit for their work!”) than about illegal copying (“What, I can’t share with my friends?”). So industry representatives take the easy route and simply pretend that one is the other.
I hadn’t expected to see a New York University associate provost fall for the trick, though. Marilyn McMillan, Associate Provost and CITO at NYU, has published A Note on Illegal Downloading. It starts out with a few paragraphs purely about illegal copying, then takes a turn into truly weird territory…
We know that illegal downloading of music is a widespread practice. It has become an international phenomenon, one that is hardly confined to college campuses. Its allure is clear: why would you pay for something—a song to load on your MP3 player or a movie to load on your laptop—when you can get it for free with a little exploration and few keystrokes? And why would you not share something for free with friends?
In answering those questions, the University appeals to what Abraham Lincoln once called “the better angels” of your nature and to your commitment to the culture of scholarship.
As communities of scholars and learners, research universities—such as NYU—have two primary missions: to educate students and to create knowledge. This latter mission involves the production of original scholarship and research. Accordingly it is accompanied by an enormous respect for proper recognition being given to the creator of those ideas and knowledge. In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another’s work without permission or attribution. At NYU, which also has large and renowned programs in the arts, this respect extends to the creation of new art.
Few in this community would uphold shoplifting CDs from a record store. And few would be content to see their own work—a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course—taken by someone else and used without permission.
Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally. …
What a coincidence: that’s exactly the same analogy Hilary Rosen (the former head of the RIAA) used to offer when talking on college campuses, and it makes no more sense now than it did when Rosen first tried it. Copying is not like shoplifting (when you copy a song, the original doesn’t go missing), and it’s not like presenting others’ work as your own, either. But if McMillan had stuck to the real issue and said “Few in this community would support post-publication sharing of other people’s papers and journal articles…”, well, she might have found some of her own faculty disagreeing with her: for example, the ones who support Science Commons, the Public Library of Science, and other academic organizations devoted to the idea that sharing knowledge is a good idea.
McMillan ends with this zinger:
The Internet has brought unimaginable access to information and extraordinary flexibility and opportunities for exploration and communication. NYU wants you to take advantage of all that. But, just as you abide by certain standards of behavior for scholarship and for University life, so, too, should you abide by high standards when it comes to the intellectual property of others on the Internet.
Is it too much to ask that a university stand for the spread of knowledge and culture, and that university officials distinguish between crediting and copying? Unfortunately, McMillan is not alone in believing that the prevention of sharing is part of a university’s mission. Consider proposed Amendment 2314 to the U.S. Senate Higher Education Act of 2007 (S. 1462). It would require institutions of higher education to monitor file-sharing, report to the Secretary of Education, and “provide evidence to the Secretary that the institution has developed a plan for implementing a technology-based deterrent to prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.”
If you’re a student or faculty member at NYU, please consider writing to Associate Provost McMillan, or pointing her to this article.