From yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education

In 2005, when the Motion Picture Association of America stepped up its campaign against college movie pirates, officials with the trade group said that 44 percent of the film industry’s domestic losses were the result of illegal downloads on campus networks.

That statistic — which came from a report by a research firm called L.E.K. — was certainly striking. But it was also wrong, MPAA officials now say. According to the Associated Press, a “human error” compromised the study: In fact, the MPAA says, just 15 percent of the movie industry’s domestic losses can be attributed to campus piracy.

Like most humans, I am overwhelmingly sympathetic to human error. I am less sympathetic to using data that are subject to error to push people around and to lobby for draconian legislation, while refusing to make the underlying data available for study and examination. The University of Michigan asked the MPAA for their study years ago, and has also asked the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to provide the data upon which they base their own remarkable claims about the prevalence of file sharing of copyrighted materials on college campuses. This university, and many others, have great expertise in the analysis of such data. In an important sense, it’s what we do. We also have a culture of openness, in which we allow others to examine and criticize our work.

The MPAA reports that it is going to have an independent third party check the original study and report on it. Here’s an idea: Why don’t they simply make the study public and let the world have at it?

Partly as a result of the deeply flawed MPAA study, Congress asked the University of Michigan to respond to questions about file sharing. We post such things, of course, and the questions and answers are available on our copyright website under “House Judiciary Committee Survey of University Network and Data Integrity Practices”.

And, as long I’m talking about our friends in the big media companies, it’s worth noting that AOL, a much bigger Internet Service Provider than all of the colleges and universities put together, is owned by Time Warner, which in turn is a member of both the RIAA and the MPAA. Surely a great deal of illegal filesharing is undertaken by AOL users. It is puzzling that RIAA and MPAA want colleges and universities to employ mechanical measures that would restrict what their students can do, but they have not pressed AOL to impose the same restrictions. (Actually, it’s not puzzling at all, but it ought to be.)