Crack down on file sharing

The RIAA has sent almost three times as many complaints to colleges as last year.

Mike Enright

Students might want to think twice before illegally downloading music as the recording industry once again threatens file sharers with lawsuits.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced a renewed campaign yesterday to crack down on illegal music downloading on college campuses across the country.

As part of this amplified enforcement, the music industry trade group sent 400 letters to 13 universities informing them of pending copyright infringement lawsuits against their students, according to a RIAA press release.

Through this approach, students can avoid going to court if they agree to settle the claims made against them “at a discounted rate.” In the release, the RIAA states that it will continue to send hundreds of similar letters each month for the foreseeable future.

The announcement of the pre-litigation settlement letters builds on a national effort by the industry to stamp out illicit file sharing by sending thousands more notices of copyright violations to universities than it did last year.

The top-25 universities received almost 15,000 copyright complaints this academic year. Comparatively, during the entire 2005-06 academic year, the RIAA sent out a total of 5,000 notices.

Of the top 25, five are Big Ten schools, led by Purdue University, which ranks second overall and received more than 1,000 complaints. Last school year the RIAA sent Purdue 39 notices.

The University of Minnesota, by comparison, received 59 notices for 2005-06 and 140 so far this year.

“We have a multifaceted effort,” RIAA President Cary Sherman said in a statement. “We hope that the notices, which are an improved reflection of the file-trafficking problem on campuses, will help spur schools to take more proactive, comprehensive steps to address our mutual problem.”

And while many universities have Internet-use policies stating network users must obey the law – and thus avoid illegal downloading – several Big Ten administrators said proactively enforcing such rules isn’t really an option.

Purdue University tells its students upfront to avoid downloading copyrighted material, Purdue spokesperson Jeanne Norberg said.

But most students on campus have laptops with wireless cards, and many of the school’s buildings use wireless networks, she said, meaning every time someone goes online they use a different Internet protocol (IP) address, which can be used to track a person’s Web activity.

And since RIAA complaints only have a violator’s IP address, the school can’t always trace that back to the corresponding offender, Norberg said.

“The other thing to keep in mind is if you have 1,000 IP addresses that have allegedly violated the law, that doesn’t mean you have 1,000 people,” she said. “It could be 20 people, you know, downloading a bunch of music. It’s hard to really say what that means.”

Like Purdue, the University of Minnesota does not condone illegal file sharing for students, staff or faculty, nor does it actively monitor an individual’s activity because that stirs up privacy concerns, said Steve Cawley, vice president of the University Office of Information Technology.

“We try to educate students and are in a reactive mode,” he said.

The first time the University receives a notice of a copyright violation, it sends a message to the offending student informing him or her of the complaint and requires the removal of pirated material and disabling of the program used to get it.

Repeat offenses are referred to the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, formerly the Office for Student Judicial Affairs, and can lead to disciplinary action.

Despite the potential legal and academic ramifications, University journalism sophomore Casie Cook said she doesn’t think most college students have any reservations about downloading copyrighted material.

Although Cook said she doesn’t download music, many of her friends do.

“I’m just lazy, so instead of taking time to download all that stuff, I just buy it,” she said. “It’s convenient.”

Decreasing his downloading, first-year student Gerardo Bonilla said he limited his online intake after his sister told him music industry officials were going after people using file-sharing programs.

He said he thought that overall, students are aware of the potential pitfalls of pirating music but don’t worry about it much.

“Personally, when I do it, I don’t think Sony is going to come after me,” Bonilla said.

Cawley advised students who download illegal content in any form to be smart and stop doing it altogether.

“It really is in their best interest to avoid sharing music in these open networks,” he said. “They’re just asking for trouble. It’s easy to catch them.”

Although he doesn’t download much music anymore, Bonilla said he does make use of the underground server known as the “Hub,” created by University alumnus David Hedges and accessible to any one with a University e-mail address.

“I think it’s pretty cool, you can download movies really quickly,” he said.