Oct. 23, 2003 | SAN FRANCISCO (AP) --
As part of its campaign to thwart online music and movie piracy, Hollywood is now reaching into school classrooms with a program that denounces file-sharing and offers prizes for students and teachers who spread the word about Internet theft.
The Motion Picture Association of America paid $100,000 to deliver its anti-piracy message to 900,000 students nationwide in grades 5-9 over the next two years, according to Junior Achievement Inc., which is implementing the program using volunteer teachers from the business sector.
Civil libertarians object that the movie industry is presenting a tainted version of a complex legal issue -- while the country's largest teachers' lobby is concerned about the incentives the program offers.
"What's the Diff?: A Guide to Digital Citizenship'' launched last week with a lesson plan that aims to keep kids away from Internet services like Kazaa that let users trade digital songs and film clips: "If you haven't paid for it, you've stolen it.''
"We think it's a critical group to be having this conversation with,'' said MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor, suggesting online piracy may not have yet peaked. "If we sit idly by and we don't have a conversation with the general public of all ages, we could one day look back at October of 2003 as the good old days of piracy.''
The effort doesn't stop in the classroom. Beginning Friday, public service announcements are being released to approximately 5,000 theaters nationwide, profiling people in the movie industry and arguing that digital piracy threatens their livelihoods.
Indeed, Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, told Penn State University faculty and students this week that his industry is in "a state of crisis'' over digital theft.
But some copyright law experts aren't pleased that the MPAA is the only sponsor for such classroom discussions. They worry that the lesson plans don't address "fair use'' constitutional protections for digital copying for personal or educational use.
"This is really sounding like Soviet-style education. First they're indoctrinating the students and then having students indoctrinate their peers,'' said Wendy Seltzer, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The takeaway message has got to be more nuanced. Copyright is a complicated subject.''
Melinda Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, says it's unsettling when corporate presence in the classroom is tethered to sponsored incentive programs.
In this case, Junior Achievement is offering students DVD players, DVD movies, theater tickets and all-expenses-paid trips to Hollywood for winning essays about the illegalities of file-sharing. Teachers, too, can win prizes for effectively communicating the approved message in class.
"What it speaks to is kind of a new era in commercialism emerging in classrooms where the attempts to connect with students are becoming more and more sophisticated. Schools that are often strapped for cash are more tempted to partner with these organizations,'' Anderson said.
"Coming from school, these companies are getting a tacit endorsement for their product,'' Anderson said. "That's not a school's role -- to be the purveyors.''
The program got a rocky start during its first presentation, to some relatively cyber-savvy teens at Raoul Wallenberg High School in San Francisco.
Andrew Irgens-Moller, 14, buried his head into a backpack on his desk and rolled his eyes as the guest teacher warned of computer viruses and hackers that could take control of a user's desktop via file-sharing programs. He objected that antivirus software could scan downloaded files and only sophisticated hackers could pull off the remote desktop computer takeover.
Then the teacher cut him off.
Bret Balonick, a tax accountant on loan from PricewaterhouseCoopers to teach the anti-piracy class, was arguing that some downloaders have been affected by malicious activity. Besides, he said, it's illegal to upload and download unauthorized content online.
"If it's illegal in America, host it in Uzbekistan,'' snapped the 14-year-old.
Balonick then had the freshmen role-play as singers, actors, producers, computer users. But even the "producers'' quietly acknowledged that they too share song files over the Internet.
"It's not illegal if you decide to give it away,'' said Wilson Cen, 13, regarding burning copies of music CDs for his friends. "They don't want you selling them. It's a gift, you're not selling it.''
Brenda Chen said she uses Kazaa at home: "I just want certain tracks from the CD, not the whole CD. It's a waste of money.''
David Chernow, Junior Achievement's chief executive, said in a telephone interview that the explosion of peer-to-peer activity among young people is a ripe topic for public school classrooms.
"We're really trying to teach young people to be responsible and to obey laws that they may not understand,'' Chernow said. "Just because it's easy doesn't make it right.''