File Sharing Burns College Kids

Geoff Guenther

There was a time, the heyday of Napster, when one could download any song without repercussions. In 2000, Metallica and Dr. Dre pioneered the art of pursuing lawsuits over this illegal file sharing and thus began the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)’s infamous and prolific legal action against illegal downloaders, a campaign of litigation that has recently hit home for three Colgate students.

The RIAA, a trade group that represents the recording industry, is perhaps most famous for its lawsuits against file sharers who engage in copyright infringement, most of whom are young. The RIAA was instrumental in the bankruptcy of the original Napster program in June 2002 and has since then pursued legal action against over 20,000 alleged distributors of copyrighted works over the Internet. Recently, the RIAA has even set up a Web site where Internet users suspected of sharing copyrighted material can settle their debt using a credit card.

“The unauthorized uploading or downloading of music is illegal,” the Web site says. “It is just as wrong as shoplifting from a local record store — and the impact on those who create music and bring it to fans is equally devastating.” The website goes on to say, “You are … responsible for your actions and the harm that you have caused.”

Despite the RIAA’s best efforts in going after illegal file sharers, this technology, which enables anyone with an Internet connection to download music and other files without paying for them, still exists in many forms. Software programs such as LimeWire are extremely popular and still allow users to download copyrighted material, much to the chagrin of music and movie companies.

The idea of illegal file sharing is especially relevant to college students, who downloaded 1.3 billion songs illegally last year. In June of this year, The United States House Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing to discuss the issue of illegal downloads on college campuses.

“Illegal file sharing isn’t just about royalty fees,” Bart Gordon (D-TN) said at the hearing. “It clogs campus networks and interferes with the educational and research mission of universities. It wastes resources that could have gone to laboratories, classrooms and equipment. And it’s teaching a generation of college students that it’s alright to steal music.”

Many at the hearing felt that colleges should do more and use preventative technologies to stop illegal file sharing by their students before it happens. The impetus for this hearing was most likely the fact that more and more college students are being targeted by RIAA lawsuits.

Colgate’s Chief Information Technology Officer David Gregory reports that three Colgate students are in the process of being sued by member recording companies of the RIAA for copyright infringement involving the distribution of music. The three students received letters from RIAA attorneys informing them of the forthcoming legal action and directing them to the RIAA website where they could settle the case at a discount.

“The reason we are sending this letter to you in advance of filing suit is to give you the opportunity to settle these claims as early as possible,” one letter said. “If you contact us within the next forty (40) calendar days, we will offer to settle the claims for a significantly reduced amount compared to what we will offer to settle them for after we file suit or compared to the judgment amount a court may enter against you…”

“In deciding whether you wish to settle this matter, here are some things you should consider… The minimum damages under the law are $750 for each copyrighted recording that has been infringed (“shared”). The maximum damage award can be substantially more… The entire library of recordings that you have made available for distribution as well as any recordings you have downloaded, need to be maintained as evidence. Further, you should not attempt to delete the peer-to-peer programs from your system — though you must stop them from operating.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Gregory said, who recounted a story in which a student at a peer institution was removed from class by the FBI for distributing and downloading music illegally over the Internet. “There are plenty of places you can get music legally. Just because [file sharing] is free doesn’t mean you should do it.”

Gregory also notes that illegal downloading has consequences besides legal action. He says that file sharing exposes computers to spyware, worms, viruses and other harmful elements that can slow a computer to a crawl.

Gregory points students to legal alternatives such as iTunes. There is another legal option for music sharing that is specific to college students. Ruckus is backed by venture capitalists and advertisers and allows free and legal downloads of over 3 million songs by anyone with a college e-mail account.

Detractors of this new site point out that it is not compatible with the ever-popular iPod, and that the Ruckus library is not nearly as extensive as that of similar programs such as iTunes or Rhapsody.