Last month, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ended its long-standing policy of filing mass lawsuits against those who illegally download music online. Instead, the RIAA now plans to persuade Internet service providers (ISPs) to issue copyright infringement warnings to their users and eventually terminate the contracts of those who repeatedly share music files illegally. Since students were a major target of industry lawsuits and universities act as de facto ISPs for their students, this new enforcement mechanism could enlist universities. About 100 students from Boston University have been named in such suits.
In a BU Today article last spring, Azer Bestavros, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of computer science, and Leo Reyzin, an associate professor of computer science, argued that the RIAA’s enforcement methods were inexact, counterproductive, and a futile defense of an obsolete business model. We wondered what Bestavros thought of the RIAA’s latest move to crack down on illegal downloading.
BU Today: Do you agree with the RIAA that music piracy is a problem on college campuses?
Bestavros: I think it is a problem. But it is only a problem because of the distribution model that the music industry has insisted on. So in many ways it’s a problem of their own making. I do not condone it. I certainly think it’s wrong for students to do it. But it’s really a symptom of something that is even more wrong.
Do you think it was a good move for the RIAA to stop its mass lawsuits for copyright infringement?
Yes. I think that it was obvious that this was going to happen, because there was no way that it could have succeeded in this campaign. It was getting a lot of negative PR, and it wasn’t really working as a deterrent. Basically, it was going after illegal downloading in an almost random, ad hoc manner. It called a halt to that because it was not working.
What’s your take on its new enforcement strategy?
I’m not speaking as an absolute authority on it. But my understanding is that the RIAA wants the ISPs to cancel the subscriptions of any individual who has been warned a few times about illegal file sharing. I think the latter is a step in the right direction, but it should realize that not all ISPs are the same. I don’t have any problem with the RIAA working with Comcast or Verizon. But universities are different. Yes, here at Boston University we act as the equivalent of an ISP, but here it’s not about getting access to the Internet — it’s about education.
Can you elaborate on that distinction?
But universities are in a peculiar position. I cannot see how a BU student could be a student here without an Internet account. One could argue that BU should make that a condition of being student — equating illegal downloading with plagiarism, for example. But that doesn’t make sense to me. Plagiarism is a violation of academic conduct; it’s an academic sin. I don’t see illegal downloading in the same category. In other words, if I speed on the highway and get pulled over or if I’m caught shoplifting, BU doesn’t expel me for that. So, I feel like the RIAA is now asking universities to act as police, to police behaviors that are outside of the academic context.
Leaving universities aside, do you think commercial ISPs will cooperate?
I think it is partly a question of resources. It could be that the RIAA will just continue to use the technology it has to generate the notices and forward them to the ISPs. There’s also a cost in terms of canceling customer contracts, but presumably, the policy would be mostly just used as a deterrent, so that most customers would stop downloading after a couple warnings.
The other part of the question is whether ISPs have the motivation. I think that when they were asked to identify these users to go to court for RIAA lawsuits, they certainly did not have the motivation, because privacy is a big deal for Internet customers. If I have Comcast and I know that Comcast is starting to release identities, it becomes a competitive advantage for a rival ISP that says it’ll refuse to disclose its customers’ identities. This is probably why the RIAA targeted universities. Now, if we’re talking about just terminating the contract, commercial ISPs might be more willing.
Should ISPs bear some responsibility for people who use their network for illegal activities?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that ISPs should be responsible for the actions of their customers. I think this is also one of the big sticking points for universities. There have been moves in Congress to deny federal grants to universities who don’t monitor their students’ Internet usage, for instance. But I don’t think you can punish a university for the acts of some of its students. And the same goes for ISPs. I don’t think they’re aiding and abetting a crime just by providing Internet access.
So, what’s a better solution for the RIAA?
There are other solutions, such as allowing students to pay a one-time license for downloading. It would be the equivalent of a one-time charge, maybe an addition to room and board, for all-you-can-eat music. But it will require the music industry to change its distribution model. And the solutions that the RIAA has come up with so far — suing and going after individuals through ISPs — neither is compatible with the university’s role as educator.
It’s funny. We saw this latest switch in enforcement strategies coming. In many ways, it seems like the RIAA is just going through the motions. And if I were to make a prediction, it would be that in a year or so, we may be finally talking about a new distribution model, because the one that the RIAA has spent so many resources defending is one that it should realize is obsolete. In a digital age, you just can’t stop people from copying. But you can start thinking about ways to live with copying.
Chris Berdik can be reached at email@example.com.