Peer-to-peer file sharing is usually not a scholarly communications issue in itself. Most such activity involves the infringing reproduction and distribution of music and video files, and it is more of a problem for colleges and universities than a benefit. Nevertheless, there are legitimate forms of file-sharing that happen at universities (and between them), and the big danger that recreational file swapping poses to schools is that draconian measures to control the illegal activity will also inhibit legal and productive collaboration.
Each time Congress proposes to address file-sharing at universities, this is one of the concerns that unites the higher education community against the proposals. Another concern is that the cost of implementing new mandates will be very high, even though university networks account for only a small portion of the overall problem. The recent proposal in Congress (see article here from the Chronicle of Higher Education) is a case in point. The proposal to require that universities develop a plan to address file-sharing is a little bit insulting – most schools already have a plan – and the instructions to offer alternatives to illegal music downloading and to explore technological solutions to the problem are unfunded mandates that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And filters that stop music sharing may also inhibit legitimate collaboration; the history of Internet filters suggests that they are often more effective at preventing legal activity than illegal.
The problem posed by illicit file-sharing will not be solved by increased enforcement measures; the genie is already out of the bottle in that regard — P2P swapping has grown beyond the bounds of any attempt to stop it using either law or technology. What are needed to curb the growth of P2P are business models that make legal acquisition of digital music and movies more attractive than the illegal alternatives. Georgia Harper from the University of Texas (see her blog here) has been a vocal advocate of business model development as a solution to some of our current copyright problems, and a conversation between Georgia and some speakers at a recent conference caused me to start wondering what such business models would look like.
One possibility came to my attention (rather belatedly, I suppose) while watching a football game on Saturday. Verizon Wireless was heavily advertising its V-Cast Song ID service, which allows a user who hears music that they like to capture a sample of the audio, identify the song and purchase a copy directly from, and to, their cell phone (see news report here). This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of value-added service that can move listeners back to legal music downloading services, and it represents a much more positive solution to the problem of file-sharing than any of the legal remedies yet proposed.