RIAA burns U students for downloading

Aidan M. Anderson

On an April morning in 2004, a phone call awakened art history student Ben Bercher notifying him he might be sued for copyright violation and that he’d better find a lawyer.

The caller, from the University’s Office of Information Technology, told Bercher the lawsuit and ultimatum letter could be picked up at its office.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 requires Internet service providers, if subpoenaed, to turn over names of customers associated with an Internet protocol address for copyright enforcement. But some doubt the efficacy of these measures.

On campus, the University serves as the Internet provider.

Bercher headed from his room to the lobby of Centennial Hall where he picked up a copy of The Minnesota Daily to find his story on the front page, “File-sharing lawsuits reach U.” The article detailed two unidentified students targeted by the Recording Industry Association of America for copyright infringement.

Having never been sued, served or even cited in the past, Bercher sought advice from a lawyer.

“This was all new to me,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Bercher decided to negotiate the settlement himself, because he felt the litigation would be too expensive.

The letter demanded $5,000 to $6,000, and threatened continued legal action, Bercher said.

He counter-offered a dollar a file ” the going price on iTunes ” for his 800 downloaded songs. But the negotiators wouldn’t take less than $3,000, and Bercher settled in cash.

“That’s a hell of a lot of money for someone in college,” he said.

But the RIAA doesn’t pay attention to whether a person can afford a settlement and inflexibility is common, said Fred von Lohman, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to freedom of digital information.

“That was about right for that time; it’s our understanding that their typical settlement has gone up to more like $4,500,” von Lohman said.

The process of threatening lawsuits and demanding money has become streamlined, and most of the settlements are handled by a collection office outside Seattle, von Lohman said.

“It’s become very detached from any reflection of what the person may have done,” he said.

The Electronic Foundation Front published a report in November that evaluated the RIAA’s tactics in bringing lawsuits, and claims the RIAA’s tactics aren’t working.

“We basically found that file-sharing is just as prevalent, if not more than, when the lawsuit campaign began and the money is just going back into suing the next 700 people,” von Lohman said.

As of November, the RIAA has sued more than 15,000 of the tens of millions of file-sharers in the United States, according to the report.

“It strikes me as very shortsighted,” von Lohman said.

In an e-mail to the Daily, RIAA spokeswoman Amanda Hunter stated that the lawsuits are an important part of the association’s efforts to discourage illegal downloading.

“These lawsuits have helped arrest the tremendous growth of illicit peer-to-peer use, and we will continue to aggressively pursue them,” she said.

The RIAA is working to educate and turn consumers to legal means of downloading music. Record companies license music to these legitimate services in an effort to curtail the illegal downloading, she said.

Bercher’s lawsuit had the opposite effect.

“They only sued two at the entire University and I was one of those; what are the odds they’d get me again?” Bercher said.

He continued to download on peer-to-peer networks after the settlement, but doesn’t do it anymore, he said.

The RIAA has targeted only users with shared folders who have been uploading files, not those who have only downloaded, von Lohman said.

Users can avoid being targeted by disabling the sharing features on their computers, he said.

The handling of copyright act violations has changed since Bercher was pursued in 2004.

Normally, the Office of Information Technology receives a notification of alleged illegal uploading with the offending IP address. The Office of Information Technology staff then either contacts the user directly or, if the violation occurred in a residence hall, the hall director, said Ken Hanna, University security and assurance director.

The University has received about 90 such complaints so far this year, Hanna said.

First-year art education student and Pioneer Hall resident Judith Island had her Internet access restricted in October because she used Kazaa to download, and unknowingly upload, files on a peer-to-peer network, she said.

The warning was a hassle, but better than parting with $3,000 she doesn’t have, she said.

“I definitely won’t be using Kazaa or the other programs again,” she said.

As to whether her friends learned from her mistakes:

“Not at all,” she said. “For my friends that still do it they’re like, Oh, that sucks, but it hasn’t stopped them.”