Big media groups like the MPAA and the RIAA have historically targeted college campuses with “anti-piracy” measures, and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — the blacklist bill they’re trying to push through Congress — is no exception. The bill’s supporters insist that it targets only “rogue” foreign sites dedicated to piracy, but its vague language and overbroad enforcement methods all but ensure it could be used to stifle student and educator speech.
Open educational resources
Some sites with reason to be particularly concerned are international communities dedicated to “open educational resources” (OERs), which are created to be shared, built upon, and used in education. Sites like the Japan Opencourseware Consortium or Universia, which offer resources from more than 1,000 universities and represents over 10 million students, could fall into this category. In the past decade, these resources have become increasingly popular across the world, aided by the dropping cost of digital distribution and the availability of technologies and platforms for hosting and sharing. SOPA could reverse those changes by placing prohibitive liability burdens on sites that offer these resources and the platforms that enable them.
Educators working in the OER community have raised the alarm about the proposed legislation: Curriki, a site which collects curricula for K-12 education, has written about SOPA’s problems; Creative Commons, whose free copyright licenses are used widely in the OER community, has also voiced concerns with the bill; and a large group of educators submitted a letter to the House of Representatives explaining why the bill would “chill the creation of educational content.”
Libraries and librarians
They’re not alone. Libraries represent another educational group that could face fallout from SOPA. The Library Copyright Alliance, a group whose members include the American Library Association and two other major library organizations, has also written a letter to the House of Representatives [pdf]raising major issues with the bill.
Alarmingly, the librarians point to “three pending copyright infringement lawsuits against universities and their libraries relating to their use of digital technology,” reflecting “a growing tension between rights holders and libraries, and some rights holders’ increasingly belligerent enforcement mentality.” That same enforcement mentality, under SOPA, could lead to criminal prosecutions of libraries, even for activities that are a fair use and conducted without the intention of commercial gain.
Fair use for students and educators
When faced with these sorts of situations, administrators will likely enact policies to shield their universities from liability, even if those policies don’t take advantage of the fair use exceptions to copyright provided to educators. In spite of the law’s current explicit protection for “multiple copies for classroom use,” many universities currently pay blanket licensing fees to the non-profit company Copyright Clearance Center in an attempt to stave off potential liability. And it’s understandable why the universities pay: the Center is now partially financing a 2008 lawsuit filed by an academic publisher against Georgia State University, which did not pay for such a license.
Educators know that licensed copyright clearance can take weeks or months, and students know that it can drive the cost of photocopied collections of articles and book excerpts up to hundreds of dollars. But Georgia State University changed its copyright policy after the lawsuit was filed, and it’s hard to blame administrators who follow suit to avoid costly and time-consuming legal action. If current policies already favor copyright holders over the university community, what will they look like when bills like SOPA cast the copyright situation into even deeper uncertainty?
What can you do?
Others in the education community have problems with the bill, and with its similarly disastrous counterpart in the Senate, PROTECT IP. The United States Students Association, which represents 4.5 million students at more than 400 campuses across the country, has come out against the two bills [pdf], and a group of more than 100 law professors has sent a letter about each bill [pdf] to Congress.
Students, librarians, professors, and others in the educational community, aware of the problems that SOPA would cause, are speaking up. And with Congress marking up SOPA this week, we need students, educators and librarians to speak out.
We’ve prepared an anti-SOPA action toolkit for people who want to take a stance against the blacklist bills. Some of action items apply directly to students:
- Coordinate a teach-in or debate at your local college or community center. Invite local experts in copyright and free speech to come discuss the issue.
- If you’re in high school, talk to your civics and media studies teachers about a class discussion on the implications of this bill. Point them to our free Teaching Copyright materials.
- If you’re in college, speak out through like-minded organizations working for digital freedom, such as Students for Free Culture or Electronic Frontier on Campus. If there isn’t a chapter at your school, start one. Then use that platform to coordinate with other students to speak out against this bill.
- If you’re in college, set up a meeting with your college newspaper editorial board and explain the bill to them and why they should speak out about it. Work with them to write articles on the topics. Check out these examples from the University of Buffalo, University of Massachusetts, and University of Minnesota. See more examples at the Center for Democracy and Technology's Chorus of Opposition page.
- Write a blog post about the blacklist bills. Whether it’s a candid explanation of why you oppose the legislation, a discussion of the effect on human rights, or a call to filmmakers to protest the blacklist, there are plenty of things to say about this scary legislation. Help us get the word out by writing articles on your own blog, your school blog, or on blogs that take guest contributors.
- Are you an artist? Showcase the dangers of censorship through art and music, and use your art as a way of reaching people who might otherwise not know about this issue. You can make stickers, posters or patches, create a YouTube video, or hold an open-mic night around censorship.