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Laying down the copyright law -- to children

Film studios back antipiracy course

ENCINO, Calif. -- The $90 billion entertainment industry is teaching middle-school children a course in copyright law that some education specialists say is one-sided and promotes commercialism in the classroom.

In the past year, the Motion Picture Association of America has spent approximately $200,000 to launch its program called ''What's The Diff?" to combat digital piracy. Despite the criticism, the trade group plans to continue the program next school year.

The 45-minute class is taught by volunteers from the nonprofit business group Junior Achievement, and reaches about 900,000 children in primarily disadvantaged schools from Boston to Los Angeles. The volunteers, some of whom work in the entertainment industry, talk with students about the liabilities of downloading music and films from the Internet.

Critics say that the program does not adequately explain the public's rights in copyright law, nor does it discuss the proliferation of legal websites that offer free music and films. Worse, say the program's detractors, is that it rewards those students who parrot the industry line with trips and free DVDs. At the end of the school year, students are asked to write an essay ''to get the word out that downloading copyrighted entertainment is illegal and unethical," according to the teachers' guide. Prizes include an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood, worth about $1,000; a Sony DVD player and library of 14 hit movies on DVDs, worth about $350 total; and a selection of 21 Hollywood classic DVDs, valued at $250. Teachers whose students win the contest will also be rewarded with prizes, such as a year's worth of free movie theater tickets for the teacher and a guest.

''It's inappropriate to offer tips, gifts, and prizes in exchange for adults pushing a commercial agenda in the classroom," said Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman for the National Education Association. ''It speaks to a new era of commercialism in classrooms."

Others claim that the entertainment industry, whose revenues depend on copyrighted material such as films and music recordings, should not be teaching students about copyright law without inviting alternative views. ''It's rather like inviting the American insurance industry into the classroom to tell kids about the future of health care," said Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit technology group. ''The entertainment industry has a strong financial incentive to control a biased discussion."

The industry is dominated by five studio-based conglomerates that also own major recording labels, television networks, radio stations, and other media subsidiaries. Its antifilm-piracy curriculum was developed to preempt problems suffered by the music industry, which for years has claimed that it loses as much as $4 billion a year from illegal copying. ''We know we are losing a great deal of money in illegal movie downloads, too," said Rich Taylor of the Motion Picture Association of America.

He said that 500,000 movies are being downloaded every day around the world, although he wasn't sure how many of those are illegal. ''We know that one area we have to attack is on the educational front." Like its cousin, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America has started to sue those who download content illegally. But unlike the recording industry, the film industry is tapping a nonprofit business group to bring its antipiracy message to young people.

Earlier this year, Junior Achievement volunteers debuted the industry's program in California classrooms. One volunteer, Steve Dolcemaschio, an executive with E! Entertainment Television Inc. (jointly owned by Comcast Corp., The Walt Disney Co., and Liberty Media Corp.) worked with Diedre Ndiaye, who teaches speech and drama to sixth- through eighth-grade students at Markham Middle School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Many children in the class indicated they had never downloaded anything before.

The volunteer and the teacher worked from a 25-page classroom guide to explain the concept of using a computer to download files, which they called ''morally and ethically wrong." The students played roles such as ''The Film Producer," ''The Starving Artist," and were asked questions such as ''Has anyone ever copied your homework? How did this make you feel?"

By the end of one session, the teacher asked one boy: ''Will you stop copying music online and download the right way?"

''Yes," he answered. ''I'll go to the music store and buy more CDs."

Students learn to repeat the program's motto: ''If you don't pay for it, you've stolen it."

''But that's not true," said Wendy Seltzer, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ''That may be what the MPAA would like the copyright law to be, but that's not what the law says."

The ''fair use" doctrine allows the public to use copyrighted material for educational purposes. One can use another's work to parody, review, or critique that material. You can even legally swap material, as long as it's not for commercial gain, said Seltzer. ''People tape movies on their VCRs and swap it with friends without getting arrested for piracy," she said.

Copyright law has become increasingly controversial because companies are trying to gain more control over creative material, Seltzer said. Meanwhile, many artists are turning away from corporate recording labels and studios and allowing people to download free independent films and music.

Artists at Creative Commons, garageband.com, and other websites encourage free downloads of their material, as long as people don't use the material for profit. . ''There are hundreds of thousands of artists who are desperately hoping that people will [watch and] listen to them," said George Ziemann, owner of a music production company, MacWizards.

Then there are questions surrounding piracy itself. Despite the companies' claim that downloads cost them billions of dollars, there is no reliable evidence proving that claim, according to Ziemann, von Lohmann, and others.

One study used industry figures to show that major recording labels in the last few years have been releasing as many as 25 percent fewer CD titles, while increasing the price of CDs. Excluding promotional CDs, the average price of a CD between 1998 and 2002 rose 19 percent, according to the study published by Sound & Vision magazine. These higher prices, combined with fewer titles being released, have probably hurt music sales, said von Lohmann.

Independent studies verifying financial loss from film piracy are also scarce. One study, performed by AT&T Labs, found that adults, not children, are the biggest illegal file-swappers.

Commercialism has no place in the classroom, said Alex Molnar, a professor who is director of commercialism in education at Arizona State University. ''This program is a time vampire," he said. ''Is it more important for kids to hear the movie industry's message or should they be learning to read and pass new test standards?"

Yet Darrell Luzzo, senior vice president of Junior Achievement, defends the industry's antipiracy program by saying it's not meant to cover all aspects of copyright law. Rather, the idea is to encourage student debate. ''We are learning ways to enhance classroom discussions." 

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