The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced in early August that it has initiated lawsuits against six University of Chicago network users for copyright violations, charging that the defendants illegally distributed or downloaded music and refused recording industry offers to settle out of court.
The University of Chicago has received 20 pre-litigation settlement letters to date from the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said Greg Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the U of C. Four of the violations were unidentifiable, and all but six of the remaining defendants opted to settle with the digital media industries.
Before launching a suit for campus copyright violation, the RIAA or the MPAA must acquire a court subpoena to demand that the college or university release the identity of the offender. At the end of August, the University received five subpoenas from the RIAA ordering the release of five network users charged with digital media piracy.
Jackson said that the University has not yet released the identities of the offenders to the RIAA but will comply with court orders.
“The University’s policies are still the same. If a valid subpoena shows up, we have to comply,” he said.
“We won’t release identities to the plaintiff until the court-specified date, which I believe is October 1. We have advised the individuals that we have received subpoenas for their identities and advised them to seek private legal advice. The University is not a party to the lawsuits,” Jackson added.
The RIAA announced last month that it had begun litigation proceedings against the University network users without having yet acquired the identities of the offenders. Until the RIAA subpoenas for the identities of the network users, the suits are filed as John Doe lawsuits.
“This is typical RIAA,” he added, “where they always exaggerate the legal stage that they’re in. They send off the press release to the school and raise the hype on campus.”
Press relations representatives from the RIAA could not be reached for comment. However, suing consumers is not the recording industry’s first line of action against music piracy, according to online statements from the RIAA’s website.
“Suing individuals was by no means our first choice. Unfortunately, without the threat of consequences, far too many people were just not changing their behavior. Education alone was not enough to stem the extraordinary growth of illegal P2P [peer-to-peer] use,” the statement read.
The RIAA has been suing consumers for music theft since amendments to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) extended existing copyright infringement laws to the recording and motion picture industries.
The RIAA estimates that music theft costs the recording industry about $300 million annually. Campus downloading accounted for 26 percent of illegal P2P music downloads and 21 percent of P2P users, according to a 2006 study by the NDP Group, a market research firm. The study also found that about half of college students engage in digital media piracy, and over 1.3 billion music files were downloaded illegally by college students last year.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of consumer digital rights, opposes the tactics the music and movie industries use to sue students who download illegally. “The RIAA places schools in a difficult quagmire by compelling colleges and universities to help it sue students more efficiently, demanding that they forward ‘pre-litigation’ settlement offers to their students,” said Derek Slater, activist coordinator of the EFF. “If schools don’t forward on these letters, they might prevent students from getting a cheaper settlement.”
The RIAA’s “misguided lawsuit strategy” causes colleges and universities “to waste substantial resources on doing the RIAA’s dirty work,” Slater added.
The University of Chicago’s NSIT department forwards settlement letters from the recording industry to the offending individuals. At that point, the University is no longer legally responsible for the acts of copyright infringement.
“We forward the settlement letters and we tell the students that this is serious, you should get legal advice. We can’t provide that legal advice,” Jackson said.
Although Jackson said that the University does not keep tabs on the number of University of Chicago students that opt to settle with the recording and motion picture industries, he said that generally about half of students nationwide choose to settle outside of court.
“One of the agreements of the settlement is the promise not to disclose the amount which they settled for. So the RIAA says that settlement is cheaper than an actual lawsuit, but the actual numbers aren’t disclosed,” Jackson added.
While Jackson said that he did not know precisely how the University of Chicago’s track record of illegal downloads stands relative to its peer institutions, he speculates that smaller schools often receive more negative attention from the music and movie industries than larger, well endowed institutions.
“If someone goes after Harvard, Harvard doesn’t care because it has an infinite amount of resources. So the RIAA goes after those who don’t have infinite resources to fight back,” he said.
However, not all colleges and universities that find themselves awash in pre-litigation complaints choose to comply with the music and motion picture industries, said Slater, citing the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s decisions not to forward settlement letters or save information on digital media downloads.
“One approach that schools should consider is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s. It’s not forwarding letters, because it can’t,” Slater said.
“It only retains the necessary data logs for a month. The university is also asking the RIAA to pay the costs of processing the complaints.”
And with the growing popularity of P2Ps on campus, schools and students can expect to see more lawsuits in the near future. But despite the rise in illegal downloading and the subsequent suits, Jackson said he does not think that legal action will remedy the problems of illegal file sharing.
Jackson attributes much of illegal downloading to shortcomings within the digital media market itself and the fact that many music and movies files are unavailable through legal means.
“For example, you want to buy just ‘Eleanor Rigby’—it’s a Beatles song—but not the whole album. The problem is, you can’t buy online versions of Beatles music. You have to buy the CD and rip it yourself. So your options are limited,” Jackson said.
“There’s a lot of music that just isn’t available [for legal purchase] online, and very few movies are available online,” he added.
In congressional testimony delivered before the House Committee on Science and Technology in early June this year, Jackson outlined reasons why technological mechanisms designed to protect copyright infringement are not a panacea for digital medial piracy. He said that placing digital rights management (DRM) restrictions on music and movie files often restricts consumer freedom to use the files on a range of devices and software applications, and also invites hackers to develop new codes to unlock the files.
In the past the University administration has considered purchasing services so that students could legally download digital media files.
“We were considering spending maybe $50,000 to get these services [for digital downloading]. But we had so many issues with it. The services didn’t work well on Macintoshes, and you couldn’t download to iPods,” Jackson said.
“So eventually we decided: Why should the University be in the business of buying music for its students? It seems like a nice thing to do, but it’s hard to relate it to our educational objectives. And ultimately it would lead to tuition increases for you, the student.”
Jackson predicted that the problems of illegal downloading would only be mitigated when the digital media industries themselves transform the ways music and movie files are distributed.
The EFF promotes one such protocol for music distribution, the voluntary licensing system, as a possible solution to illegal music downloading.
“Under this model, fans would pay a flat fee to download as much music as they want using whatever software they want. This model would allow P2P users to keep doing what they already do for a reasonable fee,” Slater said.