Universities strike back in battle over illegal downloads

With 1.3 billion music files pirated by college students last year, schools are turning to technology to curb the practice. Congress watches with interest.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In addition to paying hefty tuition and footing the bill for costly textbooks, university students may also need to pay prominent record labels a chunk of change if they choose to illegally download music on the Internet.

The 2006-07 academic year was an aggressive one for the Recording Industry Association of America's crackdown on illegal downloads by college students. RIAA sent three times more copyright violation notices to universities than it did the previous academic year. Hundreds of prelitigation letters offered to settle for about $3,000.

Statistics show that college students illegally obtained two-thirds of their music and accounted for 1.3 billion illegal downloads in 2006 alone – in what the RIAA estimates as millions of dollars in losses directly attributed to college students. Now, Congress is taking action and pressuring universities to tighten network security and ethical standards – even comparing digital piracy to plagiarizing term papers in an effort to change the mind-set of students and administrators. Result: Universities are getting new software, and students are getting the message.

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"If you're on a college campus, that's where they're looking," says Kent State University student Dave Bachman, who in April settled for $3,000 with RIAA.

Students now have more options than ever for obtaining music legally with the introduction of free or inexpensive programs that cater to the college crowd. Many universities have seen a reduction in copyright violation notices after promoting such legal programs. One such program, the Ruckus Network, reworked its format in January to provide free, legal music downloads to all US college students with a valid ".edu" e-mail address. Though it won't release hard figures, Ruckus says that since it opened the floodgates to all college students, it has experienced a 60 percent increase in users and now serves "hundreds of thousands."

The accelerating adoption of digital music has contributed to a 13 percent drop in physical music sales in 2006 (and down more than 30 percent from its 1999 peak) and a nearly 75 percent increase in digital sales that same year, according to RIAA year-end charts.

The online music industry has evolved dramatically since Northeastern Univer­sity student Shawn "Napster" Fanning introduced a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing service in 1999 known as Napster. The RIAA sued soon after, and in 2001 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Napster could not facilitate the trade of copyrighted music. Napster shut down and partially settled in an agreement to pay copyright holders millions.

Since then, other services have provided free, but illegal, methods for P2P file sharing. In P2P sharing, a user establishes an account, downloads music or video files, and lets other users download his or her files in turn. The problem: Copyrighted music changes hands for free, and record labels don't get the licensing control guaranteed under 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Many Napster copycats, including Kazaa, iMesh, Bearshare, and Grokster, have settled with record labels for damages. Kazaa – once the premier P2P service, with 4.2 million users – settled in July, agreeing to copyright filters.

LimeWire is the last P2P giant standing, but several major record labels have a joint lawsuit pending to shut it down. According to the NPD Group, an entertainment research firm, LimeWire accounted for 62 percent of P2P downloads in 2006.

The free and easy access to P2P services has long plagued university administrators. Not only do such downloads take up a lot of "bandwidth," costing campuses thousands of dollars, the downloads themselves are more likely to contain viruses and spyware that can infest the university's system. Spyware, which can transmit a user's Web-browsing habits to advertisers, may even be bundled with P2P software – and linger after the P2P program is uninstalled.

In March, US Rep. Ric Keller (R) of Florida introduced a bill to increase funds for antipiracy.

"For every one Justin Timberlake, there are hundreds of sound technicians, back-up singers, and retail workers who are hurt by illegal downloading," Representative Keller said in a phone interview. "It costs our economy billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and we lose a great deal of tax revenue."

An immunity clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 protects universities from lawsuits related to illegal file-sharing on campus networks.

But that immunity could be reconsidered, Keller says pointedly, "if we find that we continue to have a situation where over half of the college students continue to illegally download and the colleges do nothing about it."

Many universities are enlisting technology to deter piracy. Software programs like Audible Magic installs a campuswide filter to stop the flow of copyrighted material.

Charles Wright, an associate vice president at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, testified to Congress that RIAA copyright violation notices to his campus declined more than 90 percent since the software was installed two years ago. The University of Florida saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs after implementing Red Lambda, a program that blocks P2P systems.

While Napster, iTunes, and Rhapsody Music now have subscription-based services for the general public, Ruckus uses an ad-supported model. (A Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student who uses Ruckus and LimeWire says Ruck­us is "not very user friendly" because "there are way too many advertisements on it.")

According to Ruckus spokesman Chris Lawson, schools with Ruckus contracts get extra benefits, such as a local server that reduces bandwidth consumption, and a movie and TV library that students can subscribe to for about $15 per semester. Mr. Lawson says students from 900 universities have registered with the service, and some 120 universities have Ruckus contracts.

The music is free to students to download and play, but if a user wants to transfer files to a portable music player, he or she must pay about $20 per semester. Note: Ruckus uses Microsoft Digital Rights Management software; it won't work with Apple computers or iPods.

The Top 10 campuses for illegal file downloads

The Recording Industry Association of America recently released a list of schools it says most frequently violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act from September, 2006 to mid-February 2007. The Top 10:

1. Ohio University (1,287 violations)

2. Purdue University (1,068)

3. University of Nebraska, Lincoln (1,002)

4. University of Tennessee, Knoxville (959)

5. University of South Carolina (914)

6. University of Massachusetts at Amherst (897)

7. Michigan State University (753)

8. Howard University (572)

9. North Carolina State University (550)

10. University of Wisconsin, Madison (513)

Since the list was published in Feb­ruary, the RIAA has noted progress:

•University of South Carolina has had no notices since the list was published.

•Ohio University received only about seven notices in May after it installed network-protection tools.

•Michigan State University has only received 14 notices.

•Howard University has gotten just three notices.

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