RIAA Sues Students for File Sharing

Andrew Ivers
University News

After a number of college students became the target of litigation for illegally sharing copyrighted electronic music files using the Internet, a number of Saint Louis University offices have taken action to educate students about the risks involved in peer-to-peer file swapping.

“I just think it’s naãve and uninformed to believe that this might not happen to you,” said Phil Lyons, assistant vice president for student development.

On Aug. 29, Kathy Humphrey, vice president for Student Development; Ellen Watson, Information Technology Service’s vice president and chief information officer and Student Government Association President Nick Sarcone sent an email to every SLU student warning that the University could not protect them from lawsuits simply because it controls the campus’ network.

“It is unlikely that SLU will escape [the RIAA’s] attention. If you are caught in the act of illegally downloading music or film, the fines and penalties will be assessed to you,” the email warned.

SGA is also planning to take action. Sarcone plans to form a task force, he said, “to investigate file sharing and how we can better educate students on the ramifications of file sharing and look into ways that the University can help institute a culture that realizes the illegality of peer file sharing.”

The task force, which Sarcone said hopes to start in the next couple weeks, will include faculty, students, staff and possible outside experts. He also said the goal of the task force will not be to produce University policy or a ban on file sharing.

“That is not my intention,” he said. “What I’ll charge them with is student education on campus.”

The education is certainly needed, according to Lyons, who said that college students are especially vulnerable to lawsuits.

“This demographic is the one they’re going after,” he said.

In the last year a great number of colleges and universities have been subpoenaed for students’ personal information, which almost all have given freely, after informing the targeted users.

Most recently, the RIAA subpoenaed Boston College for the personal information of three students who allegedly shared copyrighted material, according to The Heights, BC’s newspaper.

The RIAA claimed in its subpoena that on June 29, one student shared seven songs, and another eight. It also says on July 2, the third student shared seven songs. Citing the 1976 Copyright Act, recording companies are now expected to call for between $750 and $150,000, in fines, per file.

“You’ve got a thousand songs at $750 to $150,000 for each file?” said Lyons, as he paused and shook his head. “That’s some cash.”

He added that while users may skirt the fines, “You’re going to pay some pretty big-time legal fees.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report, estimates show an individual contesting an RIAA lawsuit could face between $30,000 and $100,000 in legal fees.

Boston University, Northwestern and Loyola University-Chicago have all also been subpoenaed. In April, students at Princeton University and two other colleges were sued in excess of $12,000 each for sharing music files.

Ellen Watson, ITS’s new chief information officer, has had personal experience with RIAA’s campaign: she was an information technology officer at Loyola in January, when it received requests by the RIAA for students’ personal information.

The school followed precedent and, in July, disclosed the requested information. Yet Watson said she thought the recording company’s goal then was simply to scare users. Now, she said, the RIAA seems to be taking litigation more seriously.

The RIAA has offered an alternative to litigation: amnesty. A user who has downloaded and shared copyrighted files may opt to voluntarily confess to the RIAA, provided that he submit a photograph of himself as well as a notarized statement promising to cease illegal downloading and delete from his computer illegally-obtained files, according to the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Users who have already been sued, or who have been identified through subpoenas served on Internet service providers, are not eligible for amnesty.

The Chronicle article also quoted Daniel N. Ballard, a Sacramento lawyer, who suggests that students who have been sued seek legal advice. A settlement with the RIAA, Ballard said, may expose a user to criminal charges and lawsuits by music publishers, given that recording companies may sue over copyrights for sound recordings only.

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