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Sheffield '11: Pirates of the Narragansett: curse of the Brown pearl

Brown students are kind, sharing people. As The Herald reported last week ("Despite enforcement, copyright violations steady in recent years," Feb. 3), the University received reports of roughly 750 copyright violations by students. As most of the reported violations come from distributing copyrighted material rather than downloading it from others, our students clearly are compassionate redistributors of intellectual property. They steal from the rich and give to the poor, the other rich, the apathetic and those doing okay.

Brown implemented its anti-piracy policy in 2003, yet illegally downloading music, movies, television and software is still a problem. I seriously doubt that any attempts to confront piracy directly will succeed. There will be no Pompey, and no excessive action will deter people from using the Internet to steal. Instead, copyright holders and institutions with many pirates — like universities — should try to satisfy the consumers.

They should offer legal ways to download the material. Distributors will need to provide an equal quality of product with minimal annoyance to its users, or they will fail to supplant piracy. People want what they want and are lazy.

Hulu is a prime example of this strategy — it offers free television programs online with minimum commercials. But the parent companies of Hulu have not made it an appealing legal alternative to piracy. Some shows are delayed a week between being broadcast and getting uploaded to the site. That might encourage some viewers to buy cable or satellite — cable and satellite providers have pressured Hulu to delay uploading shows — but others, who wish to see their favorite programs shortly after they appear, will choose to illegally download them.

The University has tried similar efforts to prevent copyright violations. In previous years, it implemented services to allow students to listen to music for free. It is also promoting the renting of movies from the Friedman Study Center. But the efforts have suffered the same problems as commercial attempts. They provided too little of what students want.

One service, Ruckus, allowed students to stream music while connected to the network. But this did little for people who want to access their favorite songs on portable devices. The model is still good for some purposes. Brown's libraries provide good resources for accessing music online, so if you take a music course, you can easily listen to the relevant pieces. While limiting access to music for a class can work, it does not meet the needs of general listeners.

Similarly, the Friedman Study Center's collection of DVDs can be nice if it happens to have the film you want, but it is nothing compared to the Internet, its tubes packed with almost every movie in history.

The University also provides television on campus. IPTV allows students to watch shows legally on their computers just like they would normally with a television. But this, too, fails to provide sufficient services to prevent students from viewing shows illegally. There is no ability to record shows the night before a big test to watch triumphantly — or dejectedly — the night after. It also has a relatively limited number of channels available — Fox News but not MSNBC. It must be because of all the good will Bill O'Reilly has garnered here. The absence of popular channels means more students will pirate their favorite shows at the times of their choosing.

Providing better services to deter copyright violations will cost money. These services are free in the same way that police and fire departments are free to use. You pay for them, but not directly. Adding better services and paying with increased tuition would trick students into legally paying for their downloaded content.

Sure, this will mean that users will share the cost equally rather than having it distributed according to use, but that is already common. Everyone contributes funding to the libraries despite — let's face it — some students' indifference to books. Some students attend more classes, and meal credits force people who eat less at the cafeterias to subsidize those who eat more.

I have yet to see a fully acceptable solution combining sufficient functionality with the ability to return a profit. So far, none provides enough of what consumers want, so they continue to pirate. Companies will not make as much money as they would if everyone bought their products through the current legal means. But it is still greater than the profits from stolen files. As soon as copyright infringement made its way to the Internet, it became as hard to kill as the Internet. The sooner companies and other institutions realize this, the sooner they can realistically address how to entice, not force, people back to legal downloading.

David Sheffield '11 is a mathematical physics concentrator from New Jersey. Peers can contact him at david_sheffield(at)


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