Most Slashdot readers won't find the idea fresh or stunning, but I think that the spread of copyrighted works without restriction should be a basic right of educational institutions. It fuels the academic discourse and might even be covered by current copyright law. I'm going to try to explain here my experiences at the University of Maryland on its DC++ hub to show how it (I think) increases the development
I'm a graduate student at UMD, currently in the School of Public Policy, but I also did my undergraduate studies in the Environmental Science and Policy Dept. (sorry for the shameless plugs, but this is context for later). I'm a Maryland native from Bel Air, which is either a suburb of Baltimore or a rural community, depending on your perspective. My father grew up in Baltimore (among other places) in the 1950's and 1960's.
Early tonight I was browsing through links about/from Lewis Black, a Maryland native of the roughly the same cohort as my father. In a History Channel interview about the state, Black recommends seeing Diner to understand the experience of growing up in MD in the 1950's. Lewis Black has said some interesting things and the History Channel, while not academic, has some merit. This movie interests me.
So, how do I explore it? A year ago my answer was simple: DC++. An on-campus-only hub operated with a wide range of files (music, images, movies, books, software, etc.) and I could probably find Diner on there. If I didn't find the movie, then I could go to the campus library tomorrow, borrow the physical media and watch the movie. More importantly, I could make a digital copy, and put it in my DC++ share.
This is where advocates of shutting down the hub chime in. They claim that this is an illegal act. I argue that Fair Use might be a factor. Unfortunately, I am not a attorney and the University has a staff of them who disagree, so I can't (or at least, have yet to) win that argument in the minds of the IT admins here on campus. My argument is that fair use includes the purposes of "teaching..., scholarship, or research" and that we're all college students, living and studying on a campus where diversity of ideas and cultures is encouraged as an academic goal, and that providing and downloading files on DC++ encourages those.
Let me provide myself as an example of how it works. I came to this University not owning a DVD and only a handful of CD's. As a public school student, I was exposed to primarily pop music. The (legally purchased) music I had consisted of one Dave Matthews Band album, two No Doubt albums, and an Irish Rovers album my dad handed down to me. Now, my iTunes library consists of everything from twangy, old-style country to modern atonal and even feminist political music. I also have a collection of movies including foreign films, American pop culture (modern and past), and independent films. I think that I can say, without a doubt, that access to DC++ increased my cultural awareness and knowledge. I can say that, without DC++, my college education would have been greatly stifled.
What is non-academic content become academic in the context of a University. Just the same as some guy standing on the steps of the Union with a boombox playing Coltrane records or displaying images of famous art, the content provided by file sharing contributes to the exposure of students to valuable, new ideas and enriches the academic discourse.
But pulling down files is only half of the academic equation (and, I think, academic duty). By posting Diner, I would be making it available for others to see. Others who view my file list might download it simply because I've endorsed it enough to host it. Others might download it inadvertently and be exposed to wholly unexpected knowledge. What calamity! And, if the movie is already available, my additional hosting adds endorsement and availability. Many file sharers will sort search results by popularity (something that most DC clients and other programs support). By also providing the file, I increase its rank and exposure. For those that claim this isn't a very academic search method, I'd point out that it's how academic papers are rated informally in Google Scholar and formally in many academic journals.
One question that must raised is what the marginal effect of the hub is. If the same goals can be met without it, it may no longer be justifiable. But can they? The DC++ hub has been shut down through policy since this past October, so the current environment provides a case study.
It was 7pm when I saw Black's interview. The library that houses a copy of the movie is already closed. Tomorrow, the commuter buses don't run to campus. It's available on Amazon Unbox, but with a pricetag that I shouldn't have to pay if I use it under Fair Use (except for reprodcution fees, of course). If I go the free route, I have to wait until Monday, but will I remember to see it? Maybe that's my responsibility. When I recommend the movie, do you think others will go through the same trouble? DC++ is technology which greatly increases the speed and efficiency of our learning environment.
I think that Fair Use, if it doesn't cover it now, should cover free sharing of information in academic environments. Collaborative and expansive academic pursuits are not a novel or challenging idea; I think they are at the core of our educational and academic system, and that copyright law must (and, IMHO, does) protect that. (Thanks to Johnny D. for helping me fix up this post.)