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Downloading Trouble

RIAA hopes to scare students straight

Ryan Harbin (COM’07) has been scared straight. She admits that she used to frequently download music without paying for it, therefore infringing on artists’ copyrights, and yes, breaking the law.

But that was before the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began slapping alleged copyright violators with lawsuits, some seeking several thousand dollars. According to the RIAA, students at 132 schools have been sued for copyright infringement since March 2004. The group has filed 50 suits against BU students — ranking the University among the top offenders in the country.

Harbin’s brush with the RIAA came as a freshman, when her roommate received an e-mail from the Office of Information Technology warning her to cease any alleged copyright infringement or face disciplinary and legal action. “The RIAA has scared a lot of people,” Harbin says. “I know they have scared me.”

On September 26, RIAA president Cary Sherman testified on Capitol Hill before the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness about illegal file-sharing taking place at colleges and universities. The gist of his testimony was that academic institutions must do more to enforce the law. “We believe in academic freedom. But academic freedom is not the freedom to steal,” Sherman told the committee. “Allowing illegal file-sharing is antithetical to any educational institution’s objective to instill in its students moral and legal clarity.”

To date, the RIAA has filed claims against 224 Massachusetts college students in a sweep targeting BU, Boston College, Harvard University, MIT, Emerson College, Suffolk University, Tufts University, Bentley College, and Mount Holyoke College.

Despite the rash of legal action, illegal file-sharing is not as pervasive at BU as it was just a few years ago, says Jim Stone, director of consulting services for the Office of Information Technology (OIT). “We’ve seen a significant decline, at least at this campus,” he says. “I think it’s definitely related to the lawsuits.”

Jim Stone, director of consulting
services for OIT. Photo by Kalman

In 2005, the OIT received 626 Digital Millennium Copyright notices, but only 408 notices to date this year, which represents a 52% decrease from 2005, according to Stone. Contributing to the decline are several steps enacted by the University, including increased efforts by OIT and Judicial Affairs to inform parents about illegal downloading during orientation; contacting violators by e-mail, phone, and in-person; and promptly shutting down violators’ network connections.

To illustrate the scope of the file-sharing issue, the RIAA cites data from NPD Group estimating that there were 315 million illegal downloads on peer-to-peer networks in April 2006. Legal downloads during the same period, estimated by Soundscan, totaled just 63 million. The difference is costing the industry millions, according to the RIAA, which believes college students are in large part to blame.

The association has singled out a few universities as having what it considers model enforcement. The University of Florida blocks the use of peer-to-peer applications used for illegal file-sharing on its networks. Bentley College uses an application that enables it to identify and filter and/or block any registered copyrighted file.

BU does not monitor its networks for illegal activity, says Stone. Rather, when contacted by a group such as the RIAA, the University will comply with subpoenas to identify individuals suspected of illegal file-sharing.

“The agency that notifies us does not know the identity of the individual, but they know the computer,” Stone says. “Once the University is notified about an alleged violator, it has a legal responsibility to notify the individual.”

BU sends an e-mail to an alleged violator stating the date and time of the alleged violation, the reporting agency involved, and details about the user’s computer. Stone says that each alleged violator has to acknowledge receipt of the notification and agree to cease and desist the illegal activity. Repeat offenders may have their computing privileges revoked and ultimately face legal action. “There’s a lot of benefit of the doubt here,” Stone says. “We don’t want our students to get sued.”

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore says that the University has worked to cooperate with the recording and the film and television industries to educate students about copyright law. But, he says, more can be done.

“We try very hard to make sure our students have information and that they understand this issue,” Elmore says. “We’ve got to find creative ways to get more people talking about this. I am open to those ideas.”

Meanwhile, Stone says, there are no plans at this stage to change the University’s current policy. “The question is, how much more are you going to do and what’s the cost of doing it?” he says. “It costs money to do those sorts of things. Is that the best use of the dollars?”

Harbin, who is general manager of the student radio station WTBU, still downloads plenty of music, but she does it legally now — by paying for it. She says students are willing to pay for music, but there’s just not enough out there worth paying top-dollar for. “It has been said before and I will say it again: if you present people with something they want to buy, they will buy it,” she says. “I buy CDs at most concerts I go to, even though I could get their albums for free anytime I wanted.”

“I think students are mindful of the debate that’s out there,” Elmore says. “There are always going to be some students who don’t care. They do so at their own peril.”