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Illegal downloading drops due to increased risk

Education, legal action lead to fewer violations on BU network

While file-sharing still takes place at BU, administrators say the number of violations detected on the network has gone down since last year. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

After processing subpoenas for six lawsuits filed against BU students by the recording and motion picture industries since the fall of 2004, Crystal Talley, the University’s associate general counsel, has developed a theory about file-sharing: it’s not a question of if you get caught, but when.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that the industry is going to stop suing people,” she says. “It’s just a matter of time and odds.”

Although illegal downloading and file-sharing persist at the University — as evidenced by the new round of lawsuits filed in September, which targeted seven students — administrators in the Office of Information Technology say that students seem to be getting the message. Jim Stone, the director of consulting services, says that the number of copyright violations reported to his office was cut in half between 2004 and 2005.

“In the end,” he says, “a student can be convinced it’s a bad idea to keep doing this.”

The process of identifying and prosecuting students who engage in illegal file-sharing involves industry bodies such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America and as many as 16 agencies that are “almost bounty hunters,” Stone says, hired to search networks and find violators. When they come across someone downloading or sharing a file, the agencies report them to the Internet service provider — in this case, Boston University. “We basically convey the notice to the individuals,” says Stone. “It’s our legal obligation under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

Once the Office of Information Technology has been informed that a network user is sharing pirated files, the user is sent up to six notices, informing him or her that unless the material in question is removed, the user can be suspended from the University’s system. After three notices, the Office of Judicial Affairs will confront the student involved; fortunately, says Judicial Affairs Director Daryl DeLuca, the situation has never reached that point. “The message from the Office of Information Technology makes it very clear what students need to do,” he says.

Compliance with University rules, however, doesn’t protect users from an RIAA or an MPAA lawsuit; when an outside agency reports a violation to one of the industry associations, the RIAA or MPAA can file a “John Doe” lawsuit against the unidentified user and then subpoena the University to obtain the user’s name. In such situations, BU must comply with the terms of the subpoena and provide the information requested. To date, more than half of the BU users sued by the RIAA have settled the cases by paying for the songs they downloaded and shared with other users illegally — in some cases, up to thousands of dollars. One suit, involving two students, has been filed by the MPAA as well.

To curb the possibility of future legal action, the University has taken an active role in educating students about the risks of illegally downloading music and movie files, warning all incoming freshmen during summer orientations about the penalties for file-sharing and holding a Constitution education event about the ethics of file-sharing last September. Although file-sharing hasn’t ceased, DeLuca says, the violations reported to his office show that the process is working.

“The good news is that we’re heading in the right direction,” he says. “The publicity that these subpoenas and suits are creating sends a very clear message that it is not worth engaging in this kind of activity.”