As EFF has been saying for years, the best way forward in the wars over illegal filesharing is the creation of a Voluntary Collective Licensing system. It sounds simple enough: Music fans would pay a small fee each month in exchange for a blanket license to share and download whatever they like. Collecting societies would collect the money and divvy it up between rights-holders based on which files are shared the most.

But how would such a system get started? One way to get a system like this up and running would be to start up in a university setting. As the RIAA well knows, students are already sharing files with increasing regularity over university P2P networks -- and increasingly getting sued for it. And, since universities are already charging fees to their students, it would theoretically be possible for universities to add a voluntary option to charge for such a service.

Recent UC Berkeley School of Information graduates Matt Earp and Andrew McDiarmid have produced an excellent masters thesis on how such a university-based VCL system might work. Their report, Investigating Voluntary Collective Licensing for Music File-Sharing at UC Berkeley, starts with the following questions:

Would such a system be attractive to students?
Is it technically achievable?
Is it in Berkeley's best interest?
How might the industry respond?

Earp and McDiarmid conducted interviews and surveys with students, UC administrators, music informatics firms, and music professionals with experience in digital music licensing. Not surprisingly, they found strong support in the UC community for VCL, with administrators expressing frustration at their difficult balancing act between adhering to copyright law and maintaining student privacy (a statement echoed by UCLA Director of IT Strategic Policy Kent Wada in his Educause paper "Get me out of the Middle"). They also found that 65% of students surveyed said they were willing to pay into a VCL system.

Interviews with music industry insiders were less promising. Earp and McDiarmid found music industry executives "wedded to the physical model" of selling plastic CDs and reluctant to give up control of digital content in favor of alternative compensation schemes. But they also found some reason for hope, noting that Warner Music has recently hired digital music guru Jim Griffin to investigate licensing options for the company.

Voluntary Collective Licensing will happen sooner or later. Hopefully universities will take advantage of their unique position to become part of a solution that gets artists paid while protecting their students from the constant threat of strong-arm tactics from an out-of-touch music industry empire.

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