As part of its campaign to thwart online music and movie piracy, the movie industry is reaching into school classrooms with a program that denounces file-sharing and offers prizes for students and teachers who spread Hollywood’s message about internet theft. The program’s debut drew sharply mixed reviews, especially in one San Francisco classroom.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) 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 instructors from the business sector.

Civil libertarians object that the movie industry is presenting a tainted version of a complex legal issue–and the National Education Association (NEA) 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 might not have peaked yet. “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 Oct. 24, 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 members and students recently 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.”

NEA spokeswoman Melinda Anderson says it’s unsettling when a corporate campaign for the classroom comes wrapped up with sponsored incentives.

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.

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 in a backpack on his desk and rolled his eyes as the guest instructor warned of computer viruses and hackers that could take control of a user’s desktop via file-sharing programs. The youngster objected that antivirus software could scan downloaded files and that only sophisticated hackers could pull off a computer takeover.

Then the guest instructor 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 with the Associated Press 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.

Links:

The Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org

Junior Achievement Inc.
http://www.ja.org