An aggressive campaign by the music industry to sue people who illegally share music online appears to be working, as students arriving for fall classes at schools and colleges across the country are facing technological hurdles and stern warnings aimed at ending swapping of music and movie files over high-speed campus and school district internet connections.

Several universities, in particular, are responding to a recording industry campaign to control the rampant copying of files over peer-to-peer networks. Among other things, campuses are distributing brochures, running ads in student newspapers, and devoting school web pages to information on copyright infringement.

Some are even using software to choke the amount of data that can flow in or out of a computer when students use Kazaa and other file-sharing programs.

“We’re feeling a great deal of pressure as a result of what the entertainment industry is doing, and we’re stepping up a lot of activities to address it,” said Jim Davis, associate vice chancellor for information technology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade group representing the five major recording companies, launched the next stage of its aggressive anti-piracy campaign Sept. 8, filing 261 federal lawsuits across the country. The action was aimed at what the RIAA described as “major offenders” who illegally distribute on average more than 1,000 copyrighted music files each, but lawyers warned they ultimately might file thousands of similar cases.

Among those sued Sept. 8 were a 12-year-old girl in New York, a Yale University professor, and an elderly man in Texas who rarely uses his computer. Each party faces potentially devastating civil penalties or settlements that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

The lawsuits had been anticipated since last spring, when the RIAA began sending subpoenas to hundreds of internet service providers asking for the names and addresses of those suspected of sharing music files illegally online.

So far, at least 10 universities, including UCLA, have been served with subpoenas demanding they help the recording industry identify possible targets of such lawsuits, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for online civil liberties.

Two of the universities–Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–argued successfully in court that the subpoenas were improperly filed. But the victory didn’t preclude the RIAA from obtaining a subpoena from a Massachusetts court.

Despite such challenges, RIAA President Carey Sherman said he was gratified by the attention copyright violations are getting on campuses.

“There’s a world of difference this year than just a year ago in terms of the seriousness [with which] universities are taking this issue,” he said.

Changing behaviors

Sharing of music files is a crucial issue for the recording industry. It says the practice is largely responsible for a 25 percent drop in CD sales since 1999. Revenue from album sales has declined from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $12.6 billion in 2002, according to the RIAA.

An estimated 60 million Americans participate in file-sharing networks, using software that makes it simple for computer users to locate and retrieve for free virtually any song by any artist within moments. Internet users broadly acknowledge music-trading is illegal, but the practice has flourished in recent years nonetheless.

The industry has begun to embrace pay music-download services, particularly the successful Apple iTunes for Macintosh computer users. But a successful Windows-based service for the vast majority of home computer users has not yet emerged.

Last year, UCLA received dozens of notices every month from record companies and movie studios complaining about copyright violations. The school has been emphasizing the legal perils of file-sharing during student orientation this summer, Davis said. The message was reinforced through eMail messages to students and faculty when classes began.

Similar tactics are being used at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“When I first got here, there was no real warning given to students,” said junior Errol Wilson, 20, an international relations and sociology major. “Since then, it seems like they’ve definitely beefed up.”

Wilson, who has downloaded about 200 songs, said he received a warning from the university about his file-sharing when he was a freshman. But he hasn’t received any other complaints since he changed his computer settings to block others from downloading music from his hard drive.

Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, among others, also have become more aggressive in warning students about downloading music.

“Sometimes students don’t realize when you download something, you’re also making it available for upload. They don’t understand the process,” said Colleen Andrews, student computing services manager for the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. “The majority of [students] don’t realize that what they’re doing could get them into legal trouble.”

The number of copyright-violation notices received by the University of Virginia increased sharply during the spring term, so university officials designed a new web site over the summer and are running ads in the student paper to boost awareness.

“We’re doing everything we can think of to make sure students can understand this,” said Shirley Payne, director for security coordination and policy.

At the University of California, Berkeley, which received one subpoena request in August, students living in campus housing must undergo orientation on copyright infringement before getting a university internet account.

The university is also limiting the amount of data students can send or receive over the internet. Students have a five gigabyte weekly limit on uploading or downloading. If they exceed it twice, they can lose their internet access.

That amount would allow students to download four movies and 200 song files without going over the limit.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons for file-sharing,” said Bob Sanders, a UC Berkeley spokesman. “There are a lot of [music files] out there that are not copyrighted. We wanted to give students room to use the internet for what it was meant for, but we do want to emphasize to them that there are illegal uses.”

Backlash expected

Not all of the attention the RIAA’s campaign has received has served to advance its cause. In fact, a lawsuit filed against 12-year-old honors student Brianna LaHara has served as a flash point in the debate over the group’s tactics.

Brianna is off the hook after her mother agreed on Sept. 9 to pay $2,000 to settle the lawsuit, apologizing and admitting that her daughter’s actions violated U.S. copyright laws.

“We understand now that file-sharing the music was illegal,” Brianna’s mother, Sylvia Torres, said in a statement distributed by the recording industry. “You can be sure Brianna won’t be doing it anymore.”

The case against Brianna was a potential minefield for the music industry from a public relations standpoint. The family lives in a city housing project on New York’s Upper West Side, and they said they mistakenly believed they were entitled to download music over the internet because they had paid $29.99 for software that gives them access to online file-sharing services.

Even in the hours before the settlement was announced, Brianna was emerging as an example of what critics said was overzealous enforcement by the powerful music industry.

The top lawyer for Verizon Communications Inc., William Barr, charged during a Sept. 9 Senate hearing that music lawyers had resorted to a “campaign against 12-year-old girls” rather than trying to help consumers turn to legal sources for songs online. Verizon’s internet subsidiary is engaged in a protracted legal fight against the RIAA over copyright subpoenas sent to Verizon customers.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also alluded to Brianna’s case. “Are you headed to junior high schools to round up the usual suspects?” Durbin asked RIAA’s Sherman during a Senate Judiciary hearing.

Durbin said he appreciated the piracy threat to the recording industry, but added, “I think you have a tough public relations campaign to go after the offenders without appearing heavy-handed in the process.”

Sherman responded that most people don’t shoplift because they fear they’ll be arrested.

“We’re trying to let people know they may get caught, therefore they should not engage in this behavior,” Sherman said. “Yes, there are going to be some kids caught in this, but you’d be surprised at how many adults are engaged in this activity.”

See these related links:

Recording Industry Association of America

Electronic Frontier Foundation

University of California, Los Angeles

University of Virginia: Student Copyright Page