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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.

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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.

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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.