Scores of individuals using computer networks at 21 universities were among the 532 people sued by the recording industry March 23 for illegally sharing digital music files over the internet.

The latest wave of copyright lawsuits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) marks the first time the trade group has specifically targeted computer users swapping music files over university networks.

The RIAA filed the “John Doe” complaints against 89 individuals using networks at universities in 10 states. Lawsuits also were filed against 443 people using commercial internet access providers in five states.

The recording group did not name which university networks or internet service providers the defendants were using.

With the “John Doe” lawsuits, the recording industry must work through the courts to find out the identities of the defendants, which at the outset are identified only by the numeric internet protocol addresses assigned to computers online.

The defendants, which the trade group claims offered “substantial amounts” of music files, face potential civil penalties or settlements that could cost them thousands of dollars. Settlements in previous cases have averaged $3,000 each.

“We are sending a clear message that downloading or sharing’ music from a peer-to-peer network without authorization is illegal, it can have consequences, and it undermines the creative future of music itself,” RIAA President Cary Sherman said.

Including the March 23 filings, the recording industry has sued 1,977 people since launching its legal assault against online music piracy last fall. RIAA has reached out-of-court settlements in approximately 400 of the cases.

Some universities have begun taking creative steps to curtail the music file-swapping craze. In January, Penn State became the first school in the nation to offer students free digital music from the newly relaunched Napster service. The basic service, which is paid for by Penn State, provides music for listening and limited downloading. However, if students want to keep a song or burn it to a CD, they must pay 99 cents per song.

University spokesman Tysen Kendig said the service has proved extremely popular among students.

More than 75 percent of the 18,000 students who live on campus have signed up to take advantage of the free application, he said, which experiences upwards of 100,000 downloads per day.

To accommodate the heavy traffic and to make sure the university’s academic services are not interrupted, Kendig said Penn State operates a separate server to accommodate music downloads.

Next fall, Penn State officials are considering offering the music service to more than 83,000 students, faculty, and staff across all 24 statewide campuses, he said.

Kendig would not say how much the university pays for the service, citing a confidentiality agreement struck with Napster, but he did say that Penn State got the service at a steep discount to Napster’s usual rates.

The cost of the service is included in a $160-per-semester fee students pay for access to other information technology services, including campus computer labs and always-on internet access, he said. The university has no plans to raise this fee as a result of expanding the Napster service this fall.

“The more students who use it and buy into it, the better,” said Kendig, who added that a number of other universities have approached Penn State to inquire about the service.

See these related links:

Recording Industry Association of America

Penn State University