Course packets are slowly disappearing from the Yale Campus. This term, I did not have to buy a single course packet for any of my classes, because all the course material was uploaded online. For some of them, course materials were uploaded to the resources section in Classesv2 site and for others, the links to the reading were posted on a separate site like this one. Even TYCO, which has a near monopoly on selling course packets to Yale students, in an interview with the Yale Daily News has said that it is diversifying its business to survive the decreasing demand for printed course packets.
Even as course material begins to migrate from offline to online, the copyright issues that surround distributing course material have remained the same. Most of the time, including copyrighted works in the course material, whether they are uploaded files or printed packets, are not likely to be cases of copyright infringement, because educational uses often fall under the fair use exception.
The prospect of Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), however, poses a new challenge for professors and students who want to share course material. The bill purports to authorize the U.S. government to shut down sites “dedicated to infringing activities.” The intention is to shut down sites the main purpose of which is to engage in sales of counterfeit goods, but the bill is likely to be used more broadly to target hosting sites in general and Classesv2 may not be an exception.
As the New York Times reported, even under the current law, the U.S. government has seized websites that facilitate file sharing (and some of them did not even host the content themselves). In at least one of these cases, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested someone for criminal copyright infringement for a domain which at the time of the arrest only had embedded content from other sites. If the bill passes, the scope of the government’s crackdown is likely to only increase. In a post about COICA, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has listed hosting sites such as Dropbox and Rapidshare as potential targets of the bill. Then, who is to say that Classesv2 is to be excluded? Who is it to say that the Yale Law & Tech site is not to be seized?
One may find the idea of Classesv2 site being redirected to the government’s seizure notice ridiculous. Of course, the scenario is only a hypothetical, but it still highlights potential problems with COICA. First, it is not practical. The seized sites could simply change their domain names. Can you imagine Yale playing a cat and mouse game with the Department of Justice? Second, it conflicts with the safe harbor created by Section 512 of Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Section 512 protects online service providers from becoming liable for copyright infringements by their users as long as they have a system of taking down infringing materials expeditiously. It has been proposed to amend the bill to provide greater protection to internet service providers, but the bill as it stands does not and has a potential to shut down useful services which have substantial non-infringing uses. Third, the bill overlooks fair use and friends and family exceptions. It is difficult to tell whether a particular content is being shared for fair use purposes or among friends and family and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. By shutting down entire websites, COICA has the potential to depress free speech by not leaving room for users who use the site for non-infringing purposes to make their cases.
If the bill were to pass, we might have to go back to using good old course packets. Just imagine not having any excuse to have your laptop out and check your gmail during class. We must stop the COICA bill.