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How much information-sharing is too much?

| Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006

For the better half of this school year, there existed a college Web site that boasted uploaded movies, television shows, music, and documentaries.

It was password-protected and independently run by an undergraduate student at Duke University. Most of the files were uploads by people who had been granted access to the student's computer -- in other words, kids who knew his IP address and the username and password to his collection.

Word of mouth kept the crowd growing, but only by a few students each week. The site was well-known enough, though, that if someone said the student's name, people usually at least recognized him as "the kid with all those TV shows online."

The site was a godsend for busy college kids: meetings, massive amounts of homework, the occasional meal and other obligations had to be prioritized before watching the latest episode of a favorite TV show. With the creation of this student's site, we could get all our work done and then make our own television schedule, winding down before bed with a downloaded version of one show or another.

But recently, worn out from a night of reading one long essay after another, I tried to open the site and found, instead of the familiar file folders, a text document that simply said, "Due to action from Judicial Affairs, this site has been shut down." I was shocked. I am a member of the Honor Council at my school -- an entity separate from, but closely associated with, the Judicial Affairs Board -- and I hadn't been aware that this student was in violation of school policy. It seemed to me that he had covered all his bases. My only guess was that the Board was questioning the legality of downloading different TV shows and movies for free, albeit private, use.

I guess I can understand their inquiry into the sharing of movies and music. I don't understand the nuances of industry sales, and don't pretend to, but I can see where production companies and artists would want to protect their rights to their work. Really, every time you want to see a movie, you have to pay money -- whether it's going to the theater or renting or buying a DVD. Likewise, each time you want to listen to an album, you buy it. But TV• Aside from the cable bill, it's a free-for-all. You can record on VHS or TiVo any show at any time. There are no restrictions.

When I was little, my mom used to record episodes of Sesame Street like they were going out of style. We still have about 20 tapes stowed away in my basement, labeled carefully: date, show, episode title. If she'd lent them out to our next door neighbors, no one would have thought anything of it. Was that stealing• Is that wrong• Now, with TiVo, it's easy to record a show and transfer it to a computer. So if a parent today recorded Sesame Street, uploaded it to a computer, and put it up on a neighborhood network for other parents to share, how is that any different• To me, it seems like advancing with technology. Keeping up with the times.

Where can we draw the line• At what point does sharing become "too much"?

I guess as cases such as this student's are resolved, we will begin to find the answers to these questions.

Megan Bode is a junior at Duke University in North Carolina.

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