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Copyright Infringement 101
As 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

When 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’ behaviors.

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.

“The 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 per week.”

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.

“You 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 users.

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.

“In 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 peak times.

“Most 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.

“It’s 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.

“They 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.

“We 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 to pursue.

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 Jordan claims.

One cannot help but wonder, if Jordan’s prediction proves to be true, how many students the RIAA will take down with it.

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