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File sharing issues remain

Ten years after the shuttering of Napster—the infamous peer-to-peer file-sharing website created by a student at Northeastern University—file sharing remains on the minds of Duke students and administrators.

Two events this week highlight the continuing debate over the legality and ethics of file sharing, the practice of using software to disseminate songs, movies or written works via the Internet.

This Monday, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta and Vice President for Information Technology Tracy Futhey e-mailed the student body reiterating the potential for both University and legal sanctions against any student found to be illegally sharing files, noting that students who violated copyright laws in the past had faced substantial lawsuits.

At a Duke Student Government meeting Wednesday, the Senate approved funding for a University-based file-sharing network, DukePie, which would facilitate easier file sharing among students and faculty.

Although very different in approach, both the administrative e-mail and the potential initiation of DukePie illuminate the difficulty in dealing with file sharing at the University level.

In the past, we have made our positions on both filing sharing and intellectual property clear. Heavy-handed crackdowns on individual students, even when legally justified, are troubling. Intellectual freedom and the sharing of information constitute the lifeblood of any university. Yet, intellectual property laws ensure that innovative new ideas are protected and thus they must be maintained.

Still, for many college students file sharing, even if technically illegal, is a part of daily life. The proliferation of music and video files online makes downloading even the most obscure works relatively easy and, more importantly, free. Our generation in particular has grown up accustomed to the notion that information and data shared on the Internet wants to be free.

Both the benefits and drawbacks of easy accessibility to free content, for artists and industries as a whole, have been thoroughly discussed. While file sharing allows relatively obscure artists to quickly develop a devoted following—witness the rise of Mike Posner, Trinity ’10, for evidence of this phenomenon—illegally downloading free materials jeopardizes the ability of new artists to make money on their work.

Students who one day hope to profit from their intellect and skills should be aware of the damaging impact that downloading materials illegally has on creative innovation.

But there is still a place for file sharing on campus. Faculty members, for example, share educational materials by posting portions of textbooks or academic papers for students to access on E-Reserves. Importantly, these activities fall within the principles of fair use, as professors are not profiting off the limited materials they make available to their classes.

Illegally downloading a hit single violates both copyright law and University policy. The issue lies in understanding how to promote the free flow of information and ideas while simultaneously protecting intellectual property and stimulating an environment that nurtures creativity, a question extending beyond the cat-and-mouse game of downloads and lawsuits played by individuals and the music industry.

In the end, colleges must seek a middle ground, balancing the necessity for intellectual property protections with the contingencies of societal expectations in an increasingly connected, digitized world.

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