April 15, 2005

Panelists Express Views on Downloading Controversy

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File sharing, which has woven its way in and out of the public spotlight since the inception of Napster in 1999, has become a highly divisive issue. Last night’s debate, entitled “The Download Debate Strikes Back,” featured experts with varying views on both the legality of file sharing, and the merits of potential alternatives to copyright infringement.

The distinguished panelists in this debate included Alec French, senior counsel, Government Relations, NBC/Universal; Cary Sherman ’68, president, Recording Industry Association of America; Avery Kotler ’95, senior director, Business and Legal Affairs, Napster; Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation; Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of communications, New York University; and Fritz Attaway, executive vice president and general counsel, Motion Picture Association of America.

The debate was moderated by Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students, who began the debate by allotting each panelist three to five minutes to “propose and discuss practical solutions” and state their “position with respect to this issue.”

In respect to the issue of file sharing, positions ranged across the panel. While Attaway took the position that “free ridership is no good for society,” von Lohmann said, in reference to file sharing of copyrighted material, “I don’t think it’s wrong. I think it’s unlawful.”

Despite the varying opinions and sometimes heated opposition to the commentary of the other panelists, all of the panelists agreed that the downloading of copyrighted materials cannot continue as is, and that a legitimate alternative is necessary. Kotler lauded the success of Napster at Cornell noting the “10,000 active users at Cornell.” He suggested that Napster and other digital rights management providers are, in spite of “flaws,” the best alternatives to unrestricted, illegal file sharing.

Von Lohmann suggested America follow the precedent set with broadcast radio, and form a system under which citizens can enjoy “whatever music we like and in exchange offer a reasonable payment.”

During the question and answer portion of the event many students expressed their enthusiasm for the panel, and one described the interaction between the panelists as “entertaining.” Students asked the panelists to comment on a variety of topics ranging from comparisons between peer-to-peer networks and Google, to the promotional benefits of file sharing to emerging independent artists, to the international implications of anti-infringement policy.

Despite the original projection of a two hour long debate, the event spanned nearly three and a half hours, with many students and faculty remaining for the duration. The panelists were engaged throughout the discussion and seemingly would have continued defending their positions if it had not been for the moderator’s request that the event not “turn into a sleepover.”

Joe Rudnick ’08, a new S.A. representative, was responsible for much of the planning of the event. Rudnick said that he “couldn’t be happier” with the debate and felt that it really met its objectives. The event was the second segment in a three part series of lectures on downloading and copyright infringement “to engage students and immerse them in the issue,” Rudnick said.

The student interest in the subject matter was visible in the length of the debate and the amount of people who not only stayed for its duration, but remained afterwards to speak more in depth with the panelists.

“It was an incredible debate, said David Toomey grad. “All sides were presented very well. The debate was very helpful to all of us in thinking about digital copyright issues.” The debate was co-sponsored by the Dean of Students, Student Assembly, and University Computer Policy and Law (UCPL). It was also streamed live over the internet and will be posted on UCPL’s website for future viewing.

Archived article by Katie Pollack
Sun Staff Writer