RIAA presses colleges on music piracy

On November 24, Jeffrey Gerard Levy, a student at the University of Oregon, pleaded guilty to illegally distributing MP3 files, movie clips and software. He received two years of probation and a state-imposed limit on internet access.

Levy’s case is the first MP3 pirating conviction under the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act, an act introduced in 1997 to provide greater copyright protection. The law redefined the “financial gain” aspect of the copyright law to include the “receipt of anything of value, including the receipt of other copyrighted works.”

Levy’s case, and a recent incident at Carnegie Mellon University in which 71 students were disciplined by the College for allegedly posting copyright-protected music on their sites, are part of an on going dilemma which finds colleges and universities across the country forced to decide how to best monitor and regulate the distribution of illegal MP3s on college network servers.

An MP3 is a standard file format for downloading music from the web that shrinks audio files, making them smaller than a regular CD song file. Many MP3s are perfectly legal for students to use and internet sites such as mp3.com provide students with songs which the copyright holders have granted permission for anyone to download.

However, it is illegal for students to upload or distribute music that has not been so sanctioned. Likewise, it is illegal to copy CDs and distribute these CD through the College network.

Williams’ basic policy regarding MP3s is “Don’t break the law,” according to Mark I. Berman, Director of Networks and Systems for the Office for Information Technology (OIT).

“We don’t want to be the police,” he said. “We believe in protecting privacy, but if students [sharing MP3s] cause a problem…we will have to do something about it.”

Last year the Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA) threatened to sue the College on two different occasions over student distribution of MP3s. The Deans Office shut down the students’ sites and the RIAA dropped the suits.

Student distribution of MP3s on the College network can be detected becasue of the high proportion of bandwidth that MP3 distribution uses. The College has 4.5 MB per second of bandwidth for Internet traffic. The distribution of MP3s might take up as much as 20 percent of the bandwidth, which OIT would be able to detect.

According to Berman, however, OIT’s role is to monitor the College network, not to closely monitor student activity on the web. “We concentrate on keeping the network running,” Berman said. “When people do things which make it difficult for others to function that’s when we do something about it.”

The University of Oregon first detected Levy’s site when it noticed his computer was sending out 1.7 GB of data. The University called the FBI, which arranged for search warrants. At Carnegie Mellon, the University randomly checked the public portions of 250 students’ computer accounts and punished 71 guilty students by suspending their home computer access.

Williams and other colleges must now set the precedent for internet policy within higher education. While issues of student privacy and the law are not new to colleges, they have yet to be specified for use within the internet. To instruct colleges and universities, the RIAA offers a special instructional package discussing the nuances of MP3 use.

Berman pointed to this lack of precedent for dealing with copyright violation on the internet, even within the courts. While the RIAA has sued people for copyright violations, the cases have all settled out of court and no one knows how judges will act should such a case be brought to court.

Almost every work of music created after March 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether or not the music is explicitly labeled as such on the internet. According to the RIAA, reproducing, distributing or offering to distribute full-length sound recordings without a license is a violation of copyright laws. While many internet users argue the “Fair Use” doctrine protects them against lawsuits, the RIAA argues that “though some uses may be ‘fair,’ uploading and downloading full-length recordings without permission almost certainly is not ‘fair use.’”

Many students rarely consider the legality of downloading non-copyrighted music and skeptics question whether the recording industry’s activism comes from concern about artistic integrity or fear of losing money.

Yet, even if students do not feel guilty stealing from a multi-million dollar industry, the RIAA’s increasing pressure on colleges will make the distribution or copying of illegal MP3s more difficult than it once was on campuses.