Since 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America has launched legal proceedings against approximately 35,000 people suspected of swapping copyrighted music files illegally over the Internet. Last December, however, the association announced it would no longer continue its massive legal campaign against such downloaders. But that doesn't mean you should grab that album off BitTorrent quite yet.
The RIAA didn't say it would stop suing people altogether, nor has it let up the pressure on college campuses, where the industry insists the problem is particularly acute. While the RIAA's legal campaign may have generated a lot of bad PR (the group had to pay the legal fees of a single mom who proved her innocence), it also succeeded in establishing an image in the mind of the American public of college students as unrepentant copyright pirates, stealing music in their dorm rooms using a campus network.
Now colleges and universities across the country are faced with the mounting financial burden of policing their computer networks and their students' activities in order to protect the music industry's property. Given the financial crunch at public universities, perhaps it's time to rethink that responsibility.
"We have always educated our kids about copyright," says David Lombard Harrison, an attorney for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. "On the other hand, we're a university. Our job is not to be the police for the RIAA or the MPAA. Our job is to educate and to take every moment as a teaching moment and to try to change the culture."
Thanks to lobbying by the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America (the kids are swapping movies, too), a portion of the Higher Education Act places some of the burden for preventing and punishing students' copyright violations on colleges and universities themselves.
Vague but nonetheless serious language in the HEA requires campuses to do three things: to inform students about the consequences of illegally distributing copyrighted material, to "effectively combat" that behavior and to "offer alternatives" to illegal file sharing.
Harrison has been nominated to participate in a regulatory process to hash out the specific rules. If the Department of Education calls him up, he may sit at the table later this spring with other higher education and industry representatives.
The UNC system has a clear copyright policy already, says Harrison, but it gives individual campuses the discretion to execute their own education campaigns and disciplinary policies: "At this point we have not seen the need to have a systemwide policy because the campuses have taken it so seriously."
One of the options UNC campuses used in order to comply with HEA—Ruckus, a free, legal online music service—abruptly shut down earlier this month. Ruckus offered downloads of 2.5 million music tracks and more than 4,000 movies and TV shows to anyone with a valid .edu e-mail address.
The grieving period will likely be brief for that sort of advertising-supported online jukebox. The music and recording industries encouraged campuses to steer their students to Ruckus, part of Sony BMG and Universal Music Group's Total Music project. Employed to keep students from trading copyrighted material on peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent and LimeWire, Ruckus didn't work on Macs, and its digital rights management protections prevented users from uploading music files to their iPods, BlackBerries or other digital devices. For a "free music" service, it kind of sucked.
Still, UNC-Chapel Hill was one of more than 200 campuses across the country that had signed an agreement to promote the service to students as an alternative to illegal file-sharing. In fact, the UNC system did some of the first pilot programs with Ruckus and other legal music services.
Many more ways to find free, legal music online now exist than when UNC-Chapel Hill first signed up with Ruckus back in 2006. With streaming sites like Pandora, band profiles on MySpace, videos on YouTube and popular online music stores like iTunes and Amazon, it may seem unnecessary for the university to tell college students where to get music online.
Nonetheless, UNC-Chapel Hill's student body president, J.J. Raynor, says campus leaders are talking to the Information Technology department about alternatives. "We know students do best when they're not in trouble with the law," Raynor says. "We want to remove the temptation to do things that would draw legal attention to students."
But this isn't just about students: The issue of whether or not to replace Ruckus with some other industry-blessed music service is part of a larger issue of how campuses can comply with the HEA. College officials say they're most comfortable with taking on the role of educating rather than policing.
"There are certainly mixed feelings among different members of the university community," says David Drooz, senior associate general counsel at North Carolina State University. "Whatever side you are on ideologically, it serves the students very well to educate them about what the law is and what's happening. Of course, education is our reason for existence, so that's the approach we prefer to take."
Last year, for instance, UNC-Chapel Hill launched an eye-catching education campaign with a Web Site and posters in residence halls (security.unc.edu/filesharing). William Cameron, assistant vice chancellor of information security at UNC-CH, credits that campaign's success with keeping the RIAA's lawyers at bay. The campus has not received a pre-settlement notice since 2007. "We know there is copyright infringement going on, but statistically, we think we're doing a better job than most at preventing it," he says.
Similiarly, the families of N.C. State students received a newsletter last fall that asked, "Have you had 'The Talk' about illegal file sharing?" N.C. State's information technology department had some scary numbers to share with parents: During the 2007-08 academic year alone, N.C. State received 1,331 complaints about alleged copyright violations, including 114 pre-litigation notices that demand $3,000 from the alleged violator to avoid legal action. If students receive a pre-trial subpoena, that cost jumps to $7,000. N.C. State officials estimate students and their families spent nearly $1 million settling these complaints in a single year.
N.C. State has been hit particularly hard by the music industry's legal campaign against students, receiving more legal complaints than any other Triangle area institution. Those complaints are still coming in.
And it's not just costing parents and students: While universities themselves aren't on the hook for these settlement costs, there is real expense involved in fielding and preventing legal action against students. A survey by the Campus Computing Project published last October found that colleges and universities are spending significant amounts of money on hardware, software and personnel hours to try to comply with the HEA's requirements on peer-to-peer sharing. Some universities spent upward of $500,000 a year on compliance. (Neither UNC-Chapel Hill nor N.C. State provided a cost estimate to the Indy.)
To understand the resources involved, consider the way a complaint winds its way through a university system. Using technology that remotely monitors file-sharing software, the RIAA locates certain Internet Protocol addresses, numbers that correspond to individual computers on a network that allegedly swapped copyrighted files. The industry doesn't know the name of the person behind that IP address, so it sends a "John Doe" complaint to the university's lawyers. They pass it on to the IT department.
IT staffers then try to match the IP address to an on-campus computer and its user. They then pass the scary message along, making it clear that it's the student's responsibility to respond directly to the complaint. If the student doesn't respond to the campus IT department acknowledging the notice, his or her access to the campus network can be cut off temporarily. Depending on the campus' policy and the number of complaints against a given student, the university itself can punish the student by temporarily or permanently denying access to the university's network. Suspension and expulsion are also on the table.
Trouble is, the system isn't foolproof. IP addresses change, and the RIAA's software can come up with false positives. That's yet another reason universities are uncomfortable with playing copyright cop.
Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, says pressure from the music and movie industries is creating an increasing financial burden on campus budgets. "The notion that college students are pirates and that there's been neglect on the part of the colleges is just nonsense," he says. According to Green's analysis of the RIAA's lawsuits, only 4 percent of "John Doe" filings implicate college students. Still, much of the industry's pressure has been on colleges and universities, not on private Internet service providers.
"I'm not condoning piracy, whether it's kids in college dorms or chop shops in China," Green says. "Piracy and plagiarism are the original sins in academe in terms of stealing intellectual property. But why is this sector being singled out?"
Critics of the industry's legal campaign have suggested an alternative that would let college students swap files as they please while making sure the record companies get paid. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed a voluntary collective license program, which would work much like the system for radio airplay: Colleges would pay a fee based on how much music was being downloaded at each campus. (For more information, go to www.eff.org and search "better way forward.")
While the industry has balked at that proposal in the past, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that record companies are considering it. Perhaps the demise of Ruckus makes the idea more appealing.
Meanwhile, campus officials trying to comply with federal law are waiting for Washington to make it clear exactly what action to take. "With the budget crisis like it is and universities being asked to take significant cuts," Cameron says, "we want to make sure anything we do is effective and meaningful."