Buried in the 747pages that make up the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (COAA) is a small clause that holds colleges responsible for curbing digital piracy on their networks. Its passage in the House (it has not yet passed the Senate) prompted discussion, both contentious and cautious over how this act will be enforced. Yet what interests me, is this phrase, which asks universities to

develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.

Think about it. There are already a cornucopia of digital alternatives to illegal downloading: iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, amazonmp3, Real.com, and many many more. Despite these options, illegal downloading continues to be the way almost all college students obtain their music, and most of them don’t think twice about it.

I was speaking with a friend at Cornell last night, and it seems her university has already implemented a program like that described in COAA. Cornell, along with nearly 200 other universities such as Princeton and UCLA, currently subscribes to a site called RUCKUS. RUCKUS provides legal downloads of music, movies, and TV shows to their subscribers. According to my friend though, most of her classmates still downloaded illegally because it was so much more convenient. In her words, “no ads, no bullshit, just pure, sweet, free downloads.” Indeed it seems like RUCKUS is not as great as it markets itself: the site is annoying as a MySpace page on steroids, and the selection is very limited. You also have to download a special RUCKUS player to listen to the music and pay an extra $20 dollars a month to move files from your computer to an mp3 player. Suddenly piracy sounds a whole lot easier.

My anecdotal evidence is, of course, highly unscientific, but it did get me thinking about whether COAA’s clause is even viable. Any working alternative to illegal downloading must be at least as easy and convenient, if not even more so, than current piracy technology. And for the RIAA and MPAA, who are paranoid about file-sharing, that’s pretty difficult. Attempts to control downloads, such as DRM technology, will only drive college students to the convenience of illegal file-sharing. If the legal option were just as good as the illegal one, though, I don’t see why most college students wouldn’t use it.

Of course, to take a step back, trying to change this problem at the college level may just be too late. Any strategy that strives to be effective in the long-term will get ’em early and get ’em young, before the habits of illegal downloading are even formed. Is there hope for my generation? Alas, we shall see.

-Sarah Z.

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