The debate over file sharing on college campuses should be addressed as an issue where filtering content is harmful to the circulation of cultural and knowledge forms. We need to recognize peer-to-peer – P2P – file sharing as a digital library for the 21st century, circulating digital forms so we can think, engage and analyze the media content around us.

Putting the debate into context: Inserted into the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 was the Campus Digital Theft Prevention provision requiring all colleges to combat file sharing by devising filters to block traffic of copyrighted material. Similar decisions have relied on the testimony of non-peer-reviewed studies conducted by trade groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America, who accuse college students of being responsible for 45 percent of domestic revenues lost from unauthorized file sharing. Only later would the MPAA recant their statistics, saying the numbers were more likely around 15 percent of lost revenues. No data can verify what potential sales are actually lost. These studies have impacted decisions on file sharing, such as the Supreme Court case of MGM v. Grokster. The case ruled P2P software companies were liable for infringement and sided with media industries on projected losses in revenues. The court failed to look at the significant non-infringing uses P2P networks such as BitTorrent provide.

Most colleges estimate 20 percent of their student body live off campus. School networks have become targets for a fraction of piracy-related cases pertaining to the college-age demographic. While the college-age demographic has been portrayed as the greatest perpetrator of piracy, college students account for less than 4 percent of the 8,400 “John Doe” lawsuits that were filed by the Recording Industry Association of American from 2004 to 2006.

Legislators and critics alike need to recognize that P2P networks should be married with educational purposes already governed by the terms of “fair use” for non-infringing uses of copyrighted material. This includes digital transitions from analog, copies by equipment such as VCRs or in-class exhibitions. Clips of unlicensed commercial music, television and film have been further incorporated in new media projects and presentations done by students in many departments. In other cases, media content plays a key role in course curriculum. The problem is that students are quite often limited in how they can access content, where one physical copy may exist to serve an entire student body.

Colleges are limited in the way they can circulate such media, due to fears facilitated by the MPAA and RIAA that doing so will hurt profit revenues. The problem is we get stuck with focusing on the rhetoric over potential revenues lost by piracy when discussing the benefits P2P networks can provide a college environment. This needs to be reevaluated. The basis for a library is not weighed on the extent authors may lose potential revenues from people that read their work, have books loaned out or photocopy passages from books.

What is the solution? Peer to peer should be recognized as protected by “fair use” to distribute copyrighted material. This would take another court case to reverse previous decisions and legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Another solution is to devise an “all you can eat” file sharing service, where royalty costs are covered by the school. Colleges already incur blanket fees for services such as television, Internet, software and other costs to fill our libraries with information and archives we can access.

This is obviously a costly demand, but it is one we will have to look at in the future as pedagogical practices, student research and projects continue to further incorporate commercial digital media. This is not an advocacy for piracy nor condoning copyright infringement carte blanche. This is about finding a solution that benefits colleges and students alike.