Letter to the Editor: Beijing or Hamilton?

While browsing the Internet last Monday at Case Library, it seemed as though I’d been transported to China. As I clicked a link at The New York Times online, I suddenly was directed to an “Anti-Piracy Warning” page, with a big, bold, red and blue logo. My infraction involved the use of a bit-torrent program, a method of sharing digital files. The page required me to press a button indicating that “I will comply” with Colgate’s Internet-use policies in the future, and because this was just a warning, I only had to wait 15 minutes for my connection to be restored. The page also kindly provided me with several links, where I could find free, legal forms of entertainment. So what was I pirating, and why would I break the rules with such callous disregard? Indeed, I was using a program called Transmission to “share” a little-known film from 1978 called The Scenic Route. The film is unavailable on DVD, Blu Ray or VHS (forget Netflix On Demand), and was made by a filmmaker named Mark Rappaport. This particular filmmaker has a history of appropriating pop music and using unlicensed songs in his films – one features the Rolling Stones song “Under My Thumb” in its entirety, and Mick Jagger has never seen a single cent in royalties (which, I might suggest, is not an accidental term). Luckily, Rappaport has never been sued by Universal Records. So when I decided to download the film, I figured that the filmmaker wouldn’t mind how I got my hands on it. But Colgate did. I was caught breaking the law, warned and sent on my way.

I don’t condemn our beloved university for its policy – Colgate is trying to cover its back in case the RIAA or the MPAA decides to pick a fight. However, warnings always ought to be a matter of careful discretion. Do we really want to follow in the footsteps of an authoritarian nation, one that blocks whole search engines in fear of dissent? Should those who chronically share illegal files be individually purged from the network? Colgate has to decide whether it will vigorously oppose file sharing, regardless of specific details, or if it might issue warnings and admonishments in perpetuity, in effect giving a slap on the wrist to he or she who would share. Bit-torrents are not identical: some are legal, some share work that is part of the public domain and some share films that are unavailable commercially, but still technically illegal. Of course, many bit-torrents are completely illegal. But the details matter and blind opposition to bit-torrents restricts the freedoms of everyone who uses the Internet. I don’t know if it was wrong to download The Scenic Route. It may be. But the sheer availability of the film suggests to me that I should get to make the decision to download – not Colgate.