an embattled entertainment industry cracks down on campus
file-sharing, students question the industry’s motives and
tactics, and colleges are caught in the middle
By Rick Marshall
the Recording Industry Association of America targeted Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute freshman Jesse Jordan, another RPI
student, and two students from other colleges with expensive
copyright-infringement lawsuits on April 3, many universities
found themselves scrambling to examine their own policies
regarding file-sharing and other Internet activities conducted
by their students. Yet even as the dust settles from this
first volley of media-industry litigation, many universities
are wondering whether any of it will actually change students’
With an Internet-ready computer in nearly every college
dorm room, and a student body whose thirst for entertainment
cannot be quenched by beer alone, the downloading and sharing
of various digital media has become a common occurrence
on campuses across the nation. While industries such as
the RIAA argue that this trend has cut into sales of albums,
movie tickets, and software, it’s no surprise that the lure
of “free stuff” has created a hotbed for media piracy on
campus computer networks.
While most schools have protected themselves from media-industry
litigation by abiding by the rules set forth in the federal
Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, their students
have, over the last year, become punching bags for media-industry
hooks and jabs intended to score a knockout blow on copyright
infringement occurring within college computer networks.
On Oct. 28, 1998, the United States government enacted the
DMCA with the intention of providing a general policy to
handle all legal questions that might arise in relation
to copyright protection of digital material. Along with
declaring just about anything that would allow for the duplication
of movies, music and software illegal, the act also limits
the liability of Internet-service providers for copyright
infringement that occurs via their services.
Similar to the 1984 Supreme Court decision that made the
sale of VCRs legal, the DMCA states that college computer
networks and the companies that provide business or residential
Internet service (such as Time Warner Cable) cannot be sued
for any illegal activities conducted by users of their services,
as long as certain procedures are followed.
So, now, with copies of the DMCA in hand, organizations
such as the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America
have recently begun showering universities and their students
with forms and filings. By forcing universities to jump
through hoops in order to stay on the legal side of the
DMCA, the industry has put many colleges in the position
of walking the line between being the industry’s stool pigeons
and being guardians of their students’ privacy.
More and more, the media industry is going after downloaders
with the “copyright infringement complaint”: Once an organization
such as the RIAA determines that a computer user from a
certain college has been downloading the newest Britney
Spears single, one of these complaints gets fired off to
the appropriate university officials. These simple little
messages notify the university that certain files on their
computer networks are in violation of copyright laws, and
list the files in question. Along with a specific description
of each file is as much information as the RIAA can uncover
about the identity of the individual computer where the
files are located, with the remainder of the detective duties
falling upon the shoulders of the university.
Once a complaint is received, the college’s network administrators
use this information to determine the identity of the owner
of the computer, often disconnecting the computer from the
college network while investigating into how the individual
came to possess the illegal files. Any offending media is
removed from the computer prior to reconnection, which effectively
removes it from the college network. By following this procedure
for each complaint the university receives, the school is
able to keep itself off of the media industry’s bad side,
and the student avoids a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
Seems simple enough, right? Not exactly.
Playing middleman between the litigious media industry and
download-happy students can prove cumbersome for universities.
At many schools, this has prompted changes in the way students
are informed (and frequently reminded) of the legalities
of file-sharing, as well as prompting changes in the general
arrangement of college computer networks.
According to Martin Manjak, director of the University at
Albany’s residential computing network, a surge in the number
of copyright complaints received by the university in recent
semesters caused several changes to be made in the way students
connect to ResNet, the university’s computer network. For
any student now wishing to connect to ResNet, an online
quiz about copyright ethics is administered, and only after
passing this quiz will the student be allowed to continue
with the initial setup procedure necessary to gain access
to the campus network.
quiz deals with questionable situations regarding network
usage,” explains Manjak. “The pace [of complaints] certainly
picked up at the end of 2002, and we began to see a large
increase in the number of the DMCA complaints. Since then,
we’ve been fairly steady, at about eight to 12 complaints
At RPI, where students Jesse Jordan and Aaron Sherman became
the targets of RIAA lawsuits, all students who arrived on
campus for the fall semester received a memo from university
officials warning computer users of the possible consequences
of illegal file- sharing and copyright infringement.
may be at risk,” the memo warned, in ominous bold lettering.
The memo, sent by the university’s vice president of student
life, chief information officer, and provost, instructs
students to “carefully evaluate your activities with computers
and the Internet,” as “law suits filed by the RIAA have
demanded as much as $150,000 per infringing file.”
Similar memos will be provided to new and returning students
at Skidmore College and UAlbany this semester, with UAlbany’s
version also being provided in digital form. The digital
notice will be piggybacked on the contents of certain computer
disks that contain necessary software for UAlbany’s computer
According to Sharon Roy, director of academic and research
computing at RPI, despite the fact that the university’s
copyright- protection policy is always addressed during
the orientation sessions for new and transferring students,
a new focus has been made on spotlighting the issue in ways
that students can relate to.
past years,” says Roy, “we might have emphasized some other
example to draw their attention to our policies, such as
e-mail harassment, or things like that. This year, the example
we used was music files.”
In addition to the steps taken to keep the student body
informed of copyright laws, several nearby universities
have adopted technology that limits the amount of file-sharing
and downloading that can occur over their computer networks.
By making the entire process of file-sharing more time-consuming,
the universities hope to discourage students from abusing
the network—and to physically limit the amount of illegal
file-sharing that renegade students will attempt anyway.
Both UAlbany and Skidmore College currently use a system
that limits the amount of digital traffic that can occur
over the college network, allotting only a certain percentage
of the school’s bandwidth (the capacity of information the
network can transmit at any given time) to the sharing of
various forms of media files. This system essentially reduces
the university’s information superhighway to a two-lane
data avenue when it comes to file-sharing. While students
are still able to download and share their files over the
network, their ability to do so is slowed considerably during
of our rules are of the notion that core services that the
college network needs get all of the bandwidth,” explains
Bret Ingerman, chief technology officer at Skidmore College.
“Music file-sharing at any given time cannot use any more
of that bandwidth than we’ve assigned to it.”
But when information and prevention fail, universities have
been forced to take corrective action.
For example, a new UAlbany policy requires students who
have been cited for copyright violations to pay a $25 “reconnection
fee” in order to be admitted back onto the campus network.
University officials hope that this fee, along with a mandatory
conference and the signing of a document declaring their
intentions to abide by copyright law, will reduce students’
questionable Internet activity and thereby reduce the number
of complaints from the media industry.
Though it is too soon to say if any of these policy changes
have had any measurable effect, many students snicker at
the notion of file-sharing becoming a thing of the past.
And the inconsistent nature of the copyright complaints
has caused an even greater rift between students and a media
industry they already viewed with skepticism.
obvious that it’s only the major-label bands that people
are getting singled out for,” explains Zach Church, a UAlbany
senior, “so I’m not really worried.”
And Church is not alone. Many students at local universities
share a similar outlook on file-sharing, often fueled by
the experiences of friends and classmates who have been
the subject of copyright complaints. Such students often
find that the complaints list only a tiny fraction of their
collection of illegally downloaded media. While that might
sound like good news for file-sharers, the nature of the
files singled out by organizations like the RIAA causes
students to question the industry’s reasoning.
According to many students, downloaded songs performed by
the most high-profile (and presumably well-compensated)
musicians, such as Madonna, Limp Bizkit and Metallica, get
the most attention from the media industry. Smaller acts,
who might logically suffer a more direct effect from illegal
file-sharing, rarely receive any attention from RIAA-type
organizations. This makes the oft-used industry rationale—“You’re
depriving artists of the rewards for their efforts”—seem
shaky at best.
have enough money,” states one UAlbany student who asks
to remain anonymous. “It’s not like we’re the ones selling
bootleg albums on the streets.”
Adding to the tension between students and the media industry
were the recent subpoenas filed by the RIAA against schools
such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston
College. These subpoenas, which demanded information about
the identities of computer users on the universities’ networks,
were filed under the vague provisions of the DMCA, which
granted copyright owners a broad spectrum of rights pertaining
to their ability to acquire information about computer users.
While the majority of these subpoenas were rejected by a
Massachusetts district court in early August, local universities
are cautious in discussing what action they might take if
targeted by similar litigation.
comply with legally issued requests for information,” says
Ingerman of Skidmore College.
For many students, the issue is not copyright ownership
but the methods used to enforce existing copyright laws.
The aggressive (some say heavy-handed) tactics used by the
RIAA and MPAA in lawsuits, subpoenas and advertising campaigns
appear to contradict the goals these organizations claim
The RIAA’s Web site claims that its ultimate goal is “to
educate all citizens so they know what is legal and illegal.”
Critics, however, charge that the RIAA is less interested
in education than the industry’s bottom line—case in point,
the settlement between Jesse Jordan and the RIAA for $12,000,
a sum equal to the full-time student’s entire savings [“Somebody’s
Watching You Download,” Aug. 7].
And although most college students are perfectly aware of
the consequences that may result from careless downloading
and file-sharing, all of the quizzes, reconnection fees,
and brochures in the world are not likely to deter students
from taking advantage of the treasure trove of “free” media
that the Internet provides. And many students simply, stubbornly,
refuse to change their digital practices as a matter of
principle, perpetuating an us-versus-them mentality.
The recent introduction of several legal online services
for downloading music, as well as numerous statements made
by RIAA President Cary Sherman expressing the organization’s
desire to play matchmaker between universities and legal
music-downloading services, have added a new dimension to
the controversy. But these developments also underscore
the uphill battle media industries face: Today’s college
students have been surfing the Internet most of their lives;
and the old market model of entertainment retailing, which
organizations like the RIAA had hoped to preserve, is inexorably
giving way to a new Internet order.
The prospects for a compromise between students and the
media industry remain cloudy, as both sides of the controversy
remain stubbornly set in their ways. While the media industry
has the financial and legal resources on its side, the students
have the numbers and the ingenuity, finding and disseminating
methods to circumvent existing copyright laws on the heels
of every lawsuit.
And so the battle over file-sharing rages on, with no clear
sign of what the future might hold. At least one student,
however, is more than happy to offer his prediction on one
aspect of the issue: “The RIAA’s tactics will fail,” Jesse
One cannot help but wonder, if Jordan’s prediction proves
to be true, how many students the RIAA will take down with