When Jon Brown walked up to the computer help desk at Mary Couts Burnett Library at the start of the 2008 spring semester, he simply thought he was going to get his new MacBook Pro registered with the university network.
Instead, the help desk employees told him, “‘Actually, your access is suspended. Have you been using LimeWire or anything?'”
Through a library computer, the senior health and fitness major saw an e-mail in his inbox from Brooke Scogin, assistant dean of Campus Life, explaining that illegal downloading from his IP address had been detected and that his Internet would be suspended until he met with Scogin. Attached was a pre-litigation letter from the Recording Industry Association of America that gave him the option to either settle for $3,000 within 20 days or go to court, where he could be charged $750 per song.
Brown said he would’ve had to pay about $200,000 for his illegally downloaded songs if that were the case. More than nine months later, Brown said he hasn’t paid a dime and also hasn’t been sued.
“I don’t have any money,” he said. “How can I pay?”
Liz Kennedy, spokeswoman for RIAA, said the timing of lawsuits filed against those who choose not to settle vary depending on many factors, such as the defendants’ jurisdiction, and it could take a while to file against an individual because they’re filing suits all over the country, and the process depends on the different court systems.
“It’s not something we have control over,” she said. “We’re filing suits on a rolling basis consistently.”
The university’s approach
Since the RIAA launched a campaign targeting universities and their students for pirating music in February 2007, TCU received 41 settlement letters, Kennedy said. Through this campaign and its news releases, RIAA has consistently emphasized college students’ role in pirating music and the amount of the music industry’s loss attributed to it, citing a statistic reported by Student Monitor in 2006 that said 50 percent of college students download music or movies illegally.
The new Higher Education Opportunity Act, signed this summer, calls for a stricter oversight of illegal downloading on university campuses using technology and education-based deterrents. In turn, university officials have begun implementing new techniques to stem illegal downloading – private universities are spending $100,000 to almost $160,000 on such measures, according to a survey released by the Campus Computing Project last week. And Kenneth Green, founding director of the project, a continuing study on the role of information technology on American higher education, said RIAA has overstated college students’ role in illegal downloading. His project found that college students accounted for less than 4 percent of more than 8,400 suits filed during 2004 and early 2005, according to the report.
Universities have responded differently to the RIAA initiative. TCU has taken a hands-off approach – assisting in relaying information and internally placing disciplinary sanctions on the student, which more than half of private universities were doing as of fall 2007, according to the report – but backing away from the legal process.
But in light of the new higher education act, which will be enacted in 2010, campuses might have to take on a more active role in combating illegal downloading than being RIAA’s messenger.
Green said recording and movie industries and now the government are expecting universities to provide “pro bono enforcement” for online illegal activity.
He said in light of the increased attention Congress has started paying university tuition rates, the amount of money universities are expected to spend in stemming P2P activity can’t be ignored.
But taking proactive measures such as implementing technologies and enforcing policies on campus to take on illegal downloading would increase network efficiency, reduce exposure to viruses and ultimately reduce operating costs for universities, Kennedy wrote in an e-mail.
For example, the University of Utah saved about $1.2 million a year in Internet bandwidth charges after implementing a new technological approach to illegal downloading, according to an RIAA news release. Utah uses network-monitoring software that automatically disconnects computers that transmit more than two gigabytes of material in a day. The university also runs a program by Audible Magic that cancels the transfer of files that it recognizes as being copyright-protected. About 45 percent of private universities and almost 60 percent of public universities use software to stem peer-to-peer sharing.
Bryan Lucas, executive director of Technology Resources at TCU, said his department doesn’t categorize traffic as legal or illegal. But it has employed a bandwidth optimization technology from Blue Coat Systems Inc., a California-based company that secures Web communications, that allows it to limit and prioritize by usage, such as gaming and Web browsing. This allows better use of university’s Internet bandwidth and in turn saves money, he said, though he doesn’t know the exact dollar amount.
A sales representative from Blue Coat said the price of these products can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $75,000 depending on the nature of the existing system of a given network.
Are students deterred?
Currently, an educational approach is the only measure the university is taking toward illegal downloading.
Students who haven’t been targeted by the RIAA already gain awareness about illegal downloading and the risks involved through a few outlets administered by the university. During orientation, freshmen receive information about university rules regarding pirating and misuse of the Internet. Students continue to receive information regarding the issue and the risks involved through flyers and signs around campus. This year was the first year freshmen received informative pop-up messages when they first registered their computers, Scogin said. Information is also available on the Technology Resources Web site. Finally, students may receive scripted e-mails about the issue from peers who are asked by Campus Life to send the message for misusing university Internet access.
Students aren’t penalized by the university until it receives pre-litigation letters or copyright infringement notices identifying their IP addresses. Junior Sarah Bourland said the university needs to take a more proactive approach.
Bourland, an early childhood education major, received a pre-litigation letter at the same time as Brown, and chose to settle for the $3,000, though she wasn’t illegally downloading music at the time and had been purchasing music from iTunes for two years. She had unknowingly illegally distributed 133 songs that she had downloaded two years prior because she didn’t disable the share function of her peer-to-peer software.
In a similar case in Arizona, Jefferey Howell was accused of illegally distributing music through a share folder on a share ware – a folder in which he denied saving music. He also denied authorizing the distribution of the music he said was obtained legally, according to court records. In Atlantic v. Howell, Hon. Neil V. Wake said the owner of the shared folder, like that of Bourland’s containing the 133 songs, is only potentially liable as a secondary infringer of copyright.
Bourland said she wishes the university could have detected and stopped illegal downloading internally before the RIAA and law enforcement got involved, especially because in her case, she was caught for something she didn’t know was happening.
Scogin said the university holds accountable users like Bourland and those whose IP addresses might have been tainted by a roommate or a friend using their computers.
“Students are told to protect their computer and not share their passwords, so we place a lot of the responsibility on the students,” she said.
Scogin said she hopes to soon launch a program to continually remind students – beyond their freshman year – about the risks of illegal downloading.
But Brown said he thinks TCU does all it can already and that most students are aware of what they might be getting themselves into when illegally downloading music.
“I was aware before it happened to me,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t stop.”
Brown said the problem is that students don’t fully grasp the legal consequences of illegal downloading, and the best help they can get is to hear it from a friend who has been through it.
“Otherwise, you’re just going to think that it’s not going to happen – it’s not real,” he said. “If I tell my friends, ‘Dude, stop using LimeWire because you’re going to get sued,’ then they’re going to believe me.”
$3,000 -the lump sum for which RIAA asks P2P users to settle$750 -the amount per illegally downloaded song courts can mandate50% -the proportion of college students nationally who download music or movies illegally41 -the number of pre-litigation letters TCU has received28 -the number of students who have settled 2 – the number of students who are in named suits