As Internet service providers, universities make it possible for students to illegally trade copyrighted music and movie files by using online file-sharing services. This makes them a target for the Recording Industry Association of America, which has been trying to identify and prosecute as many high-volume file traders as possible. The industry association filed lawsuits Sept. 8 against 261 people who shared an average of 1,000 copyrighted songs, making good on months of threats to take legal action.
Universities are a key link for the record companies in tracking down students, faculty, staff or other people who use the universities’ Internet service. If the owners of the copyrighted material subpoena a university for the name of a user accused of sharing files, the university must hand over the name of the student.
Then it’s the student’s problem. Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, informed students in a Sept. 3 e-mail that the university would not provide legal assistance to students in that position.
But that doesn’t mean the issue goes away.
Phyllis C. Self, vice provost for academic technology at VCU, and James R. Rettig, university librarian at UR, are the universities’ representatives for compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (the legislation that outlines new intellectual-property laws), and they must answer complaints regarding copyright infringement.
Here’s where they come in:
Say a company holds a copyright for a song and discovers someone is trading it through Internet service provided by VCU or UR. The company sends a complaint to Rettig or Self. That official then contacts the campus Internet service department and identifies the user. This can take up to two hours per student, Self says. Then the university informs the student of the complaint against them. The university severs their network access until the matter is resolved.
Next, the universities deal with two issues: getting rid of the illegal files and punishing the students.
Residence hall officials take care of removing the files from student computers at VCU. UR requires students to take their computers to the campus help desk. Doug West, director of telecom, media support and user services, says any file related to a file-sharing program is removed from a student’s computer — not just those named in the complaint.
As for discipline, VCU’s student affairs office punishes students by cutting off their network access, putting them on probation, handing down educational sanctions or kicking them out of their dorms. Deans of the residential colleges at UR hand out community service hours and require offenders to learn about the legal issues of file sharing. Repeat offenders lose network access.
But a student who might be cleared with his or her university, is still not off the hook. The company filing the complaint still would have the information on file, and could can still take the student to court.
“We have no way of knowing whether a student will still be sued, even after we respond to a complaint,” Rettig says.
The trail leading to a trader’s computer could open the door for misplaced blame, especially in cases where roommates are sharing Internet service. Tim Caramore, a senior at UR, was assigned 25 hours of community service in 2001 after being named in a complaint. Caramore contends that one of his friends is the guilty party, having installed a file-trading service on his computer without his knowledge. Although he brought this to the dean’s attention, he says, he was still held responsible. Caramore performed his community service, but he and the dean continue to argue the topic.
In some cases, universities are taking the offense. At VCU, Self asked student help-desk workers to write letters to other students about the dangers of file sharing. The letters have been sent to all students, including incoming freshmen.
In early May, Self received 35 complaints from copyright holders in a five-day period, which Self says was the worst complaint period. She received the most recent infringement complaint June 28 from Warner Brothers Studio. She believes that’s a sign VCU’s education program is succeeding.
Self says students most in danger of being caught are those who upload illegal files. Record companies are probably trying to end the problem by eliminating distributors, she says, rather than targeting downloaders, who are much harder to detect.
UR has received two complaints from studios during this school year. Rettig says they were about illegally traded video files, a practice that he says has gained popularity.
As the universities deal with the issue of illegal downloads, they are trading tips. Representatives from campuses across the state met in May, discussed their policies and promised to notify each other of new ideas or any subpoenas.
As for the recording industry association, it is offering a “Clean Slate Amnesty Program” for users to avoid prosecution for infringement from any of its member companies. Under the program, users must sign an affidavit stating that they have erased all illegal files and will not trade them again.
Self is skeptical of the plan. “I’d talk to a lawyer before I would sign anything like that,” she says. S
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