Ever since receiving an e-mail notifying her that she had been removed from the University network for copyright infringement, second-year Sibo Lu has thought twice about online file sharing.
“For two days, I couldn’t log on [to the University network] at all,” Lu said. “And then I got an e-mail saying that my account was frozen.”
Lu is one of the 40 or so students that the University’s Network Services and Information Technologies (NSIT) department temporarily barred from the University network because of illegal file sharing this year. Lu said that she used BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocol that has been widely available since 2002, to download the copyrighted material.
The e-mail came as a surprise for Lu, who said she thought BitTorrent was one of the most discreet file-sharing tools available. Lu explained that the P2P client downloads files in a piecemeal fashion from multiple hosts, making it difficult for companies to identify illegal downloaders.
“The conception is that it’s safe to use BitTorrent because [the copyright holder] can’t sue you,” Lu said.
The commonly held view that private individuals are rarely sued by digital copyright holders was another reason Lu did not expect the e-mail notification from NSIT.
However, in recent years the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have upped enforcement standards with the intention of cracking down on illegal file sharing.
The MPAA announced last week that campus piracy accounts for 44 percent of illegal motion picture downloading, costing the industry $500 million in losses annually.
But the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) gave the recording and motion picture industries legal authority to begin prosecuting individuals who share copyrighted digital media.
“The question [of digital copyrighting] always was, ‘what’s going to happen here?’,” said Gregory Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the University. “What the DMCA did was extend a bunch of existing copyright laws to digital media.”
Late last month, the MPAA released a ranking of the top 25 universities that have received citations for motion picture copyright infringements. The U of C ranked 16th on the MPAA’s list, with a total of 575 violations to date.
Despite the numbers, Jackson debunked rumors that several University students had been sued by the recording industry for illegal downloading. “At least to my knowledge, there has never been a lawsuit against a University student involving music and movie downloading,” he said.
Because the offending IP address is held accountable under the DMCA, the University incurs the responsibility for copyright violations that occur on its network, Jackson said.
The University first becomes aware that a copyright violation has taken place upon receiving a formal complaint from a copyright holder.
The University receives several complaints a week, Jackson said.
If the University is able to verify the instance of copyright infringement, NSIT takes action to remedy the violation without disclosing the offender’s identity to the copyright holder.
In order to avoid legal responsibility, the University removes the offending computer from the University network, he said.
The offender is then notified of the violation and in a meeting with a dean in the College is required to promise to cease the illegal activity.
“At this point, we’ve complied and stopped the violation,” Jackson said.
Despite the hassle of clearing her record with the administration, the process was relatively painless, Lu said. “It was really fast, and they were really nice about it,” she said of the administration’s response to the situation.
Although the University does not disclose the identities of alleged offenders, copyright holders may file subpoenas which require the University to reveal the violator’s identity, Jackson said.
“As of today, we have received no subpoenas, but we have received several notices from copyright holders [indicating] that they intend to serve the University with a subpoena for offenders’ identities,” Jackson said.
The notices offer offenders the option of settling the violation outside of court in order to avoid a lawsuit.
While the University has received only five such notices to date, Jackson said that the number of formal copyright complaints has skyrocketed this year.
But the greater number of complaints the University has received in recent years does not necessarily suggest that illegal downloading on campus is on the rise. The volume of complaints likely stems from enhanced enforcement standards within the digital industries, including proposed federal legislation, Jackson said.
Opponents of new legislation proposed to crack down on illegal file sharing argue that new laws will not solve the problems that copyright holders attribute to illegal file sharing.
“Treating fans like criminals isn’t a proper solution” to illegal downloading, said Derek Slater, activist coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization that advocates consumer digital rights.
“Despite lawsuits against many P2P providers and over 20,000 music fans, file sharing is more popular than ever. Legislation isn’t going to change that,” he said.
Slater proposed alternative measures that would allow consumers to continue downloading digital files while generating revenue for artists and copyright holders.
One solution is the voluntary collective licensing system, a protocol that would allow consumers to download an unlimited number of digital files for a monthly fee.
With over 60 million P2P users, a $10 monthly fee per user would enable the music and motion picture industries to increase annual sales profits, Slater said.
Despite divergent views on copyright infringement, the digital industries and the EFF both acknowledge that illegal downloading on campuses nationwide is on the rise.
And while she does not know of other University students who have been barred from the network for copyright offenses, Lu said the e-mail she received from NSIT had repercussions for her own circle of friends.
“After this happened, a lot of my friends stopped using BitTorrent, definitely not as much as before,” she said. “And I definitely haven’t downloaded anything since.”